Interesting stuff from the Fabians today, with the publication of “No Right Turn” co-authored by Andrew Harrop and Natan Doron.
Andrew, who I have a lot of time for, has said in the New Statesman that the report shows that:
“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 scope of government.”
Well, up to a point, my Lord.
Reading “No Right Turn”, I confess I felt a degree of frustration. The research is based on polling reaction to various statements, reasonably enough. However, the dice are a little loaded, and there’s little attempt to engage with evidence that points the other way.
So, for example, we are told that the impressively high polling support generated by statements like “Public services should not be restricted according to ability to pay. We all deserve help when we need it and an equal chance.” shows enduring support for the state.
However, these seem rather like general value statements, rather than choice statements. Who is likely, after all, to say that we don’t deserve help, and shouldn’t get an equal chance?
Further, the values statements to which people assent are not about whether we should have “more” or “less” state, but abut whether there should be a certain sort of state – one that provides excellent services in a fair way, roughly speaking.
What’s more, the detailed results of the polling hints at a startling variance between values and choice questions, which is left under explored.
Later in the paper, we see that given a choice between “more tax and spend”, “less tax and spend” and “same taxes, some spending cuts” almost half of respondents opt for the latter, with the pro- and anti- spending camps splitting the rest.
To me at least, this does not suggest unbridled enthusiasm for the extension or even retention of the current state (after all, even the middle option includes cuts).
It is this tension between choice and values that niggles at me, and make me feel the authors have made a strong case that people have faith in the concept of the state, but not necessarily made the case that the state should now expand, or stay the same size convincingly.
Early in the paper there is a somewhat dismissive reference to the fact that the British Social Attitudes Survey has been used to argue that the British public have become more Conservative. This is unfortunate, because the latest edition has some interesting data that challenges both the “support the state” and the “anti-state” positions.
For example, we can see in BSAC a steady decline in support for increased spending and taxation to fund public services over the last decade:(data from Chapter 2)
We can also see a decline in the numbers who felt the state should redistribute income. (By the way, I would be surprised if the 2012 survey did not show the beginnings of a reversal of this trend)
However, while these trends are clear (the same “anti-government” trend can be seen, for example in attitudes to benefits levels, with 55% of English respondents saying benefits were too high, up from 44% a decade ago).
Now, this should not be read to imply that people are anti-state, or more accurately, anti-public services.
For example, BSAS shows a significant, sustained increase in satisfaction with the NHS.
It doesn’t seem the case that people have become less impresse by the ability of the State to meet their needs. However, there is little evidence to suggest that people are supportive of a significant advancement of the state if that involves an increase in the funding required for the state.
This may present both more and less of a challenge for the left. After all, due to the deficit the left is likely to be proposing tax increases just to “stand still” in state terms. I suspect public support for such a position will be entirely dependent on whether they believe the support will go to things they believe are worthwhile and vital, rather than those things they regard as wasteful.
However, there’s little evidence, either in the Fabian report, or in the British Social Attitudes Survey for either an expansion, or a “no cuts” position that preserves the scale of the current state.
If we want to capitalise on the value-driven support for the state the Fabian survey shows exists, we will likely need to think in terms of the smarter and leaner, not the bigger -or even simply protected- State.