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Home Opinion Scary numbers: The British Social Attitudes survey
Labour Party • Integration • Welfare

Scary numbers: The British Social Attitudes survey

Steve Van Riel - 20 September 2012

The scariest thing for the Labour Party is realising that the things we need to confront are not outside, but right here in the house with us

Don’t be thrown by the rather nice graphics and impressive longitudinal dataset: this year’s Social Attitudes survey by the National Centre for Social Research will be read by torchlight, under the covers, by fearful social democrats.

In the 1990s, between 40 and 50 per cent of people surveyed told them that “government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well-off”, now that is down to a pretty paltry 37%.  44% of the country thinks the NHS will not be free at the point of use in a decade.  Statements like the “number of immigrants to Britain” should be reduced by “a lot’” or that migrants are “generally bad for Britain’s economy” have both hauled themselves over the 50 per cent mark in recent years, with the biggest rise for the lowest incomes.  One in three voters now say they “almost never” trust British governments, of whatever political party.

Not too scared to continue reading? Cut to the dark castle of HM Treasury where, we learn this week from Tim Montgomerie, that George Osborne plans to use the coalition’s limits on any household’s benefits and any year’s immigration figures to “drive a wedge between Mr Miliband and Labour’s heartland, blue-collar voters”. Are we isolated in Britain’s threatening social landscape, just waiting to be attacked by one of these monstrous wedges? This data suggests that the following positions really are out alone in the woods: thinking the benefit system is not too complicated (8%), wanting increased spending on the unemployment benefits (15%),  believing that overall immigration should be increased (3%), not trusting the police very much or at all (11%), believing that the NHS does not need to change (5%), holding anything other than a high opinion of the armed forces (17%) or possessing “a great deal” of respect for lawyers (12%).

I might be wrong but I don’t think those are actually the positions that Labour represents.  More nuanced and moderate Labour positions fared far better.  59% think government should be responsible for “ensuring people have enough to live on if they become unemployed”, rising to 84% when asked about people who have become sick for a long time or disabled - both are Labour positions.  Of the options polled, Labour’s fiscal stance appears nearest to “keep taxes and spending the same” - a position supported by 55% of the public.  Around 50% say that it is good or very good for Britain if migrants from Muslim countries or from Eastern Europe settle here - provided, however, that they are skilled professionals or students with good grades.

Too many politicians and journalists want to read a study like this as if it were a football score: the Labour team losing whenever a leftwing position drops - whether or not that position is actually Labour policy. But, as parts of the report bring out and as has been analysed by political scientist Christopher Wlezien, it isn’t an irrational thing for someone to want more public spending in 1995, get more public spending in 2001 and then cease to say they want more public spending.  It should not seem alien to us that when a Labour Government presides over significant increases in welfare spending or in immigration, that the numbers saying that either is too high go up.

So as long as people are judging Labour’s actual position, rather than caricatures of Labour’s position, then this data might not be so frightening. However, at various points in its history, watching the Labour Party has had a horror film quality: no, don’t go out into the woods alone to check on that sound!  Just because a trap is obvious doesn’t mean that our great party can’t walk straight into it: passionately defending the caricature and proudly adopting the role that the Tories would cast us in.  Avoiding such traps is possible but it means being just as clear when you disagree with your left as you are when you disagree  with your right.  Sometimes that is the scariest thing for Labour Party members: realising that the things we need to confront are not all outside in the cold, but right here in the house with us.

Should Labour feel politically cautious about immigration and welfare? Yes. The shift on redistribution, in particular, worries me, and if part of the explanation is that fewer people know what the word means, that isn’t hugely comforting.  But this is our country: if it scares us then politics probably isn’t the right business to be in.

Steve Van Riel is head of research at communications consultancy Centreground Political Communications. He was the Labour Party’s director of policy and research at the last general election

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Steve Van Riel , Opinion , Labour Party , NHS , Tim Montgomerie , George Osborne , Ed Miliband , innigration , integration , Eastern Europe , Christopher Wlezien , Conservative Party , National Centre for Social Research , Welfare , Extremism ,


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25 November 2012 05:00

That's rellay thinking out of the box. Thanks!

Andy Farrell
22 September 2012 12:42

I suspect most of those views along with possible solutions have been given to the Policy portal. Will the Political Elite listen or will it just become another exercise like the Big Conversation is another matter.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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