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A hardening of hearts: British social attitudes in the recession

The latest British Social Attitudes survey makes depressing reading for those who believe in social justice - and New Labour's clandestine approach to pursuing it must take the blame. Ed Miliband will struggle to convince the sceptical public.
Stuart Weir
12 December 2011

These are hard times for the people of Britain, harder still for the left.  Not only does the public back George Osborne’s austerity measures and rejection of the Keynesian alternative by a measure of 80 per cent to 20 per cent, but the recent British Social Attitudes survey now reveals a dispiriting diminution in sympathy for the poor and a shift away from belief in the state. 

From a quick study of the BSA findings, it seems that social solidarity is being replaced by self-interest, or just plain selfishness. Hopes for example that the Occupy movement might represent a shift in attitudes among young people towards a more progressive future, or that capitalism itself might under pressure to make a transition towards greater responsibility, look unjustifiable. Worse still, it is among the young that attitudes are harder.

The shift is most evident politically in attitudes towards benefits and public spending. In 1991, something over half (58 per cent) thought that the government should spend more on benefits – a figure that more than halved to 27 per cent in 2009. The proportion of people who  believe that unemployment  benefits are too high has risen from 37 per cent in 2000 to 55 per cent in 2010. There is an evident shift away from the idea of relying on the state towards self sufficiency. The workless are now seen as lazy agents of their own misfortune who should find work.

There has never been a groundswell of opinion for more redistributive tax policies. But even at a time when the gap between high earners and the rest of us is increasing exponentially – and a large majority of people – 78 per cent - believe the gap is too great; and when most people believe that the CEOs of large companies should earn no more than six times more than unskilled factory workers, belief in state redistribution has actually fallen over the years – from 51 per cent in 1989 to just over a third now, 36 per cent. The furthest people go – about half of respondents – is to back an increase in the minimum wage.  There is some small comfort in that a large majority believe that child poverty is “very important” and that government should reduce it (82 and 79 per cent).

Much is made of the diminished support for higher spending on health, education and social benefits since 2002, from 61 to 30 per cent now. This is hardly surprising however since Labour did spend heavily, and to some effect, on health and schools – so that, for example, satisfaction with the NHS has doubled to 64 per cent (from 34 per cent at its lowest in 1983). 

It strikes me that Labour - under Blair, consummate communicator as he was, and his hapless successor - entirely failed to make the case for the social justice and improved public services that they were pursuing, often clandestinely, concentrating too much on administrative detail and of course on the war on terror – just as the Attlee government from 1945 to 1951 failed to educate the public fully in the great enterprise of the welfare state. Ed Miliband’s party is best placed to make the case for social justice and solidarity in a society that is turning away from both, or at least from effective state action to secure both. As I write this, I hear from another room David Cameron in full spate; it is a voice that seems ubiquitous.  Hearing that strangely high-pitched whine now is a reminder that it is going to be very hard indeed for Miliband even to get a hearing

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