Our latest Fabian Society report, “No Right Turn” demonstrates that, in the eyes of the public, the state is far more popular and less ‘problematic’ than conventional political wisdom would have us believe. When it comes to arguments for or against state spending on public services, people are more concerned with competing notions of entitlement, compassion and desert rather than debates about the size or relative powers of government. It is not the state in itself but the values and ethos that state activity can represent which matter.
The first reason for the popularity of ‘pro’-state arguments is what we call the ‘care ethic’. Our research saw supporters of all political parties back arguments in favour of tax-funded public services as a way of caring for those less fortunate in our society. But enlightened self-interest also plays a role, with many recognising that their own wellbeing and prosperity depends on government.
On the other hand few participants supported arguments in favour of letting people fend for themselves in a system of services delivered by the market. Even Conservative supporters were pretty evenly split on the merits of ‘small state’ positions and positive about most ‘pro’ arguments. Importantly the views of swing voters, the group that will decide the outcome of the next election, were much closer to those of 2010 Labour voters. Our conclusion is that public opinion does not support calls by some for the Labour party to adopt a middle-way on public service debates that cedes ground to the right.
However, support for public provision through the state is not unqualified, with contribution and desert both important factors in how people think about entitlements. This research highlights the enduring public perception that welfare dependency is an unsavoury consequence of high levels of public spending. This is the major roadblock which stops majority public opinion being unambiguously ‘social democrat’ in its views on government. To some this will come as a disappointment, but it also suggests that if the left can credibly resolve people’s concerns about ‘dependency’ it may in future be able to make the case for a more north European version of government.
For now, most people in the UK are wedded to the status quo. To conclude the research we tested participants’ views on whether levels of tax in Britain should be higher or lower or stay roughly the same. Almost half opted for the middle option, with around a quarter each choosing higher or lower taxes.
However, this broad support for today’s level of tax reflects small-c conservatism more than statist ideology; more than half of those who wanted no change said that if they had to choose they would prefer less taxes to more.
As this last finding reveals, the research includes some difficult messages for progressive advocates of the state. But in the main our evidence demonstrates that the left can feel confident in its ability to construct ‘pro’-state arguments in defence of quality public services which can go with the grain of public opinion.