Britain at political crossroads

December 13, 2010

The National Centre for Social Research today released its latest British Social Attitudes report, its landmark study of the public's attitudes and values, published annually for almost thirty years.

This year's report delivers the public's verdict after thirteen years of Labour rule. It shows a nation at a political crossroads. On the one hand attitudes on welfare have hardened to the right. On the other, many think there were marked improvements in health and education under Labour, creating potential resistance to reform or cuts in these areas.

A shift to the right in attitudes towards welfare

The public remains concerned about the gap between rich and poor. Yet concern about inequality isn't matched by support for welfare and redistribution. In fact, attitudes to welfare are even tougher than when Margaret Thatcher left office twenty years ago. Attempts to reform the benefit system chime with the public mood.Recognition for improved health and education services

Voters may have rejected Labour at the ballot box but this hides a huge increase in satisfaction with core public services over the lifetime of Labour's government. The coalition government should bear this in mind as it grapples with reform and reducing public spending in services like health and education.Implementing reform with a deficit of trust

The coalition government must wrestle with these apparent contradictions at a time when Britain's level of distrust in politicians and government has never been higher and trust in the banks is at an all time low.Penny Young, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, comments: "This year's British Social Attitudes results highlight the scale of the task at hand for the coalition government as it cuts the deficit and drives through its programme of reform. The survey points to a nation at political crossroads between left and right: it is perhaps little surprise that the election resulted in a coalition. On the one hand we are seeing a hardening of attitudes towards welfare reform whilst on the other there is strong support for investment in health and education.

'Record levels of investment under Labour appear to have paid off in terms of public satisfaction - particularly on health, where satisfaction levels are now at all time high. The coalition will need to tread carefully to avoid a backlash against the potential impact of reform or failure to invest. In contrast, changing attitudes to welfare are in tune with the government, suggesting the public will back benefit reform.

'It is twenty years since Margaret Thatcher left office, but public opinion is far closer now to many of her core beliefs than it was then. Our findings show that attitudes have hardened over the last two decade, and are more in favour of cutting benefits and against taxing the better off disproportionately. But just as Blair and Brown incorporated key concepts of Thatcherism into New Labour's ideology, Britain today is sending a clear message to Cameron and Clegg that it values the investment Labour has made in this country's core public services.

'Perhaps the biggest problem for the government is how to lead the British public away from recession and implement reform when trust in politicians, government and banks is at an all time low. It will need to convince a sceptical electorate that it is working with their best interests at heart. Emphasising the fairness of any cuts while protecting the tangible outcomes of increased spending will be crucial. The public may want the government to spend less but they don't want to lose the gains of record investment."
-end-


SAGE Publications UK

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