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Public wants more from government now than at any point in decades, survey finds

People show no sign of wanting cuts despite the increase in taxation and spending during the pandemic.

Houses of Parliament

The British public expects more from the state now than at any point in the last 40 years, according to a landmark study of social attitudes.

The British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, published on Thursday, showed demands for state intervention soared during the pandemic and are yet to come down again.

Across a range of issues, more people said the state was responsible for taking action than in any previous edition of the national survey, which has been conducted by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) since 1983.

Following a sharp rise in the cost of living, some 68% of people said the Government should “definitely” be responsible for keeping prices under control – more than double the proportion that said so in 2006.

Some 53% said they thought the government should be responsible for reducing income differences between the rich and poor, again more than double the 2006 figure, while 63% backed the government providing industry with the help it needs to grow.

The figures reflect a sharp change from the 2010s, when the BSA survey suggested there was growing public acceptance of a reduced role for the state amid the Conservative policy of austerity.

Even among Conservative voters, support for state intervention is at record levels, although they are still much less likely than Labour supporters to say it is the state’s responsibility to reduce income inequality or provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed.

Sir John Curtice, senior research fellow at NatCen, said: “It seems that for many voters, however attractive it might once have seemed, the era of smaller government that Margaret Thatcher aimed to promulgate – and which Liz Truss briefly tried to restore in the autumn of 2022 with her ill-fated ‘dash for growth’ – now seems a world away.

“They appear to be looking to government to take a significant role in finding a way out of the difficult legacy that the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have created.

“The challenge facing politicians of all parties between now and the election will be to convince the electorate that they can meet their high expectations.”

Liz Truss speech
The public appears to have little enthusiasm for the small state vision advanced by former prime minister Liz Truss (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Sir John added that, rather than being driven by ideology, voters’ desire for state intervention was driven by circumstances.

Previous surveys have suggested that demand for increased taxation and spending tended to follow a period of cuts, for instance rising from 32% under Margaret Thatcher in 1983 to 62% at the time of Labour’s landslide victory in 1997.

Conversely, periods of increased spending tended to be followed by reduced demand for further rises. By 2010, only 31% of people supported raising taxes and spending while 56% said they should be kept the same.

However, the big increase in both taxation and spending since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has not been accompanied by a demand for cuts. Some 55% of people told NatCen in January this year that they wanted higher taxes to fund more spending on health, education and benefits.

Only 8% of people said they supported cutting taxes and reduced spending, only slightly more than in recent years and around the same proportion as in 2008-2010.

Thursday’s edition of the BSA also found that the age gap in support for Labour and the Conservatives had doubled in size since 2015.

Labour is the most popular party for those under 35, while the Conservatives are the most popular for those over 55 – a gap which barely existed in the 1980s.

The survey also found that young people were now more likely to be concerned about inequality than older people, whereas previously this was not the case even if they were more likely to support Labour.

Despite this concern, young people are less likely to back increases in taxation and government spending than older people.

Only 43% of those under 35 supported raising taxes to pay for health, education and social benefits, compared with 67% of those over 55.

In the 1980s, that situation was reversed with younger people slightly more likely to support increased taxation and spending than those over 55.

Sir John said: “The impact of the pandemic on younger people’s educational and employment prospects, together with the difficulty that many younger people have in finding affordable housing, may have made them more attuned to some of the inequality that exists in Britain.

“At the same time, however, they may also have become aware of how, in an ageing society, public spending has become increasingly focused on the needs of the old – illustrated most vividly perhaps by the increasing cost of university tuition while old age pensions have been treated generously. As a result, their concern about inequality is not matched by greater support for more spending.”

The BSA survey consisted of 6,638 interviews with a representative sample of British adults, conducted between September 7 and October 30 2022.

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