“We’re more Thatcherite than ever,” yesterday’s newspapers have proclaimed, either with triumph (in the case of the right-wing press) or alarm (in the case of the left). However, although the Daily Mail may insist that “public opinion has swung dramatically to the right”, the statistics simply don’t add up.
You may expect public opinion to move against a government over time. One party is elected, it takes the country in a certain direction, and the small-c conservatism of the public as a whole pulls in the other direction, eventually deciding that the administration has gone too far.
This appears to be the pattern in the United States, for example. While Americans tend to believe government does too much, this gap has widened when a Democrat is in the White House and narrowed when the incumbent is a Republican.
Three measures recorded in the British Social Attitudes survey, on which yesterday’s reports are based, follow this classic pattern to some degree, from 1987 to 2005. That is, in the period 1987-1997 under the Thatcher-Major governments, those saying the income gap is too large, agree that working people do not get a fair share of the nation’s wealth, and think that government should redistribute wealth, grow in numbers.
After 1997, with the Conservatives in opposition and Labour in power, the dynamic goes into reverse, with a drift to the right. However, after 2005, something strange happens. Despite Labour clocking up a decade in office, attitudes move to the left.
These social attitudes at least have been moving in a progressive direction for five years. Furthermore, they are set to accelerate that trend under a Conservative-led government. In fact, we may see a Blairite effect in reverse.
While newspaper reports have asserted that the public’s supposed shift to the right is due to New Labour’s triangulation, the Cameroonian Conservative insistence that inequality matters, may cut away at their own ideological support.
Where progressives do face a difficulty is on public support for increased spending on benefits. This has been on a downward trajectory for a quarter of century. While it was as high as 58 per cent in 1991, it had fallen to 50 per cent five years later and had hit 27 per cent in 2009.
If the Left is to regain ideological ascendenscy, it has to find an answer to this difficult question: why should those who work hard, especially those on low incomes, support those who do not. Valuable work has already begun on the issue, much more is needed.