Following my friendly but direct critique of the Fabians “No Right Turn” pamphlet, the pamphlet’s co-author and Fabian General Secretary Andrew Harrop kindly offered to write a response, which I reproduce below in full.
I want to thank Andrew for taking the time to engage in debate in such an open and non-defensive way, which is one of the many reasons the Fabians are a good thing. His thoughtful response has prompted a re-response of my own, which I will publish later. (once Andrew’s reply has had a little time to breathe, as it were).
No Right Turn Ahead?
Andrew Harrop, Fabian Society.
Our report is called ‘No Right Turn’, not ‘Left Turn Ahead’ and with good reason. We found little support for an expanding role for the state but very strong backing for the state in roughly its present guise. We tested arguments setting out various positive accounts of the role of the state today and a range of ‘small state’ positions. The overriding message of both the quantitative research and a series of focus groups was that people liked the pro-state views and give short shrift to the neo-liberal arguments against the state.
This was mainly a ‘values’ study, which of course is different from asking people straight political choices. We tested ‘how convincing’ people found arguments, not even whether they agreed with them. But I’d argue this is very informative, as it provides the backdrop against which politicians must design the political choices they offer.
You can quibble over the precise wording of the statements we used – we refined them following the qualitative phase to do our best to ensure they were clear, straightforward and free from bias.
If the results hadn’t been so one-sided it might be worth arguing over the precise language we used, but with such a big margin in favour of the pro-state arguments I’d question how far that would take us.
In ‘No Right Turn’ we strongly emphasise the big exception in our findings – the public’s concerns about ‘welfare dependency’. This is the only ‘anti-state’ position with majority public support, echoing the findings from this week’s British Social Attitudes Survey.
Far from burying our head in the sand on this issue, we argue that addressing concerns about dependency should be a top priority for Labour. It is after all the only ‘bridgehead’ for neo-liberal views within mainstream public thinking.
Let me turn to the ‘choice’ question we included – on levels of tax. Perhaps we shot ourselves in the foot in our effort to be fair, since the question we asked yielded far higher support for tax cuts than the British Social Attitudes survey published on Monday.
Even so we found that only a quarter of people support tax cuts (the BSA reported that the number backing tax cuts has fallen to 6 per cent). Either of these findings is in line with our overall conclusion that while the majority of British people may not want ‘more state’ only a pretty small minority want less.
A final point, which is perhaps the most striking ‘take home’ for practitioners of centre left politics: we found a very clear divergence between the views of ‘possible’ Labour voters and die-hard Conservatives. The pool of people who Labour needs to attract to win (ie the quarter of adults who didn’t vote Labour in 2010 but would consider it next time) hold views far closer to those of Labour than Conservative supporters.
No one is disputing there are people out there on the right of politics who want a more American style of state. However the Fabian research demonstrates that few of the people who will decide whether Labour polls 34 or 42 per cent at the next election are among them.