The 32nd report of the British Social Attitudes Survey reveals that public attitudes to several major issues have remained consistent during the current government’s tenure. While it might be expected that cuts to public services and controversial reforms such as the 2012 Health and Social Care Act and the trebling of university tuition fees would have had a notable impact on opinion polls, the figures recorded in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey are very similar to those seen in 2010. For example:
- Support for the idea of university tuition fees has remained consistent over the past decade: the proportion of respondents believing that all university students should pay fees was recorded as 11% in both 2004 and 2013, while the proportion who feel that some students should pay has risen by just one percentage point (from 66% to 67%).
- At 69%, satisfaction with the NHS remains almost identical to that recorded in 2009.
- The proportion of respondents who believe that taxes should be increased in order to finance more spending on health, education and welfare has risen by just five percentage points over the course of the coalition’s tenure (from 32% in 2010 to 37% in 2014).
These figures seem to conflict with the ‘thermostatic’ model of public opinion put forward by the political scientist Christopher Wlezien, in which it is argued that public opinion responds to changes in government spending. According to this theory, the electorate has an ideal level of spending in mind for certain issues, meaning that when the government spends a reduced amount of money, support for additional spending increases, and when the government spends more, support for increased spending reduces. This model has been tested against British public opinion data from the late twentieth and very early twenty-first centuries: however, the data shown above indicates that this link may, at present, be weakening. However, the report reveals that there is one issue that has engendered a much more significant shift in opinion during the current government’s tenure: support for the concept of a coalition government has declined substantially. The notion of coalition government is unusual in British politics: the current coalition is the first to govern Britain since 1945. In 2007, 45% of respondents to the British Social Attitudes survey stated that they would prefer a coalition government over a single-party administration: however, this proportion has now fallen to just 29%.
The report also predicts several areas that are likely to be of concern to the next government, whatever its eventual composition. These include:
- Funding of the NHS. Almost the entirety of the general public (92%) believe that the NHS is facing a funding problem, with almost three quarters believing that this problem is either “major” or “severe.” However, the various methods of increasing NHS funding which were put forward by the researchers were not particularly well received. Approximately one third (32%) of respondents supported the idea of restricting free healthcare to those on lower incomes, while a quarter (24%) supported the idea of a tax dedicated solely to providing funding for the NHS. Still less popular were the ideas of paying more tax through the current system (17%), introducing charges for visits to GPs and A&E departments (14%) or charging people to cover their food and laundry costs while in hospital (12%).
- The UK’s relationship with Europe. Since 1996, the majority of the British public have either felt that the UK should seek to reduce the EU’s powers or that it should leave the EU altogether. In the most recent British Social Attitudes survey report, respondents were asked to choose from a range of options for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Of these options, the most popular was to remain a member but renegotiate terms (38%), followed by leaving the EU (24%) and leaving the relationship as it is (18%). The least popular options were to remain in the EU and increase its powers (10%) and to work towards the formation of a single European government (4%). While this euroscepticism is, according to the researchers, a continuation of a longer-term trend rather than a new development, they conclude that the next government is likely to be expected to, as a minimum, retain the UK’s status as a relatively unenthusiastic EU member. Moreover, the report also discusses the rise of UKIP, concluding that this does not, in fact, stem from a surge in euroscepticism among the British public. It states that other key characteristics of UKIP supporters are their social conservatism, their distrust of politics and concern with regard to the uneven distribution of wealth.
- Spending on welfare. With the exception of pensions and support for the disabled, spending on welfare is broadly unpopular among the electorate. The proportion who feel that the government should spend more on welfare has declined consistently over the past few decades: in 1989, the proportion of the electorate who felt this way stood at 69%, compared to just 30% in 2014. While Labour supporters tend to be more sympathetic towards welfare claimants than Conservative supporters, 50% of the former group still agreed with the statement that “around here, most unemployed people could find a job if they wanted to.” The researchers therefore conclude that it would be difficult for the next government to make any substantive changes to the welfare policies imposed in recent years without risking significant public discontent. They also suggest that it may be difficult for the incoming government to continue to meet the expectations of the public with regard to protecting pensions from spending cuts.
For further information about the British Social Attitudes survey, please see http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/.