I think we can safely assume the majority of Brits don’t define themselves in crude political terms. So, let’s look at some of the detail of the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) to understand how closely the sympathies of Britons align with the aims of the coalition and the right-wing press.
Inequality and Fair Pay
A majority believe the gap between those with high incomes and low incomes is too large, that this contributes to social problems and that it is the responsibility of the government to reduce income inequality.
The government are not ignorant of this, having commissioned Will Hutton to produce a report looking at fair pay. However, the report’s remit was restricted to the public sector with the brief to investigate a pay ratio of 20 to 1 – according to the BSAS, people think the ratio should be 6 to 1.
You have to question whether the government’s aim with this report is really about fair pay. Both the Tories and the right-wing media appear more concerned about government spending and mythical “public sector fat cats” than income inequality across the whole of society. The right-wing media, in particular, are strongly against government involvement in reducing income inequality across the private sector.
This puts the British public further to the left than the Tories and completely at odds with the right-wing media.
Just over half of people believe the government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed, but only 27% believe more should be spent on welfare benefits for the poor.
The 27% figure is the statistic most favoured by the right-wing press. And it is significant, especially considering support for higher welfare spending has decreased from 58% in 1991. However, considering this survey comes off the back of a Labour government which has increased welfare over the previous decade, the massive drop doesn’t necessarily reflect a desire to greatly reduce benefits.
This finding is therefore inconclusive. Other findings of the survey show that people aren’t unsympathetic to the poor and, in fact, favour distinctly un-Thatcherite policies: 62% want better education or training opportunities to enable people to get better jobs, 54% want the minimum wage increased, and 40% want higher income taxes to be increased.
Investment in public services
Secondary schools have been seen to improve in every way under Labour and there is widespread support for an increasing emphasis on non-academic areas including practical and life skills.
While Tory (and Lib Dem) rhetoric before the election uncontroversially focused on limiting top-down interference over schools, the policies of Michael Gove since then seem at odds to what the public clearly perceive as a successful decade for education under Labour.
In particular, Gove’s peculiar fixation on ‘traditional’ lessons (including Classical Greek, Biblical Hebrew and Latin) is not shared by the people, 72% of whom believe the teaching of life skills is more important than academic subjects.
While happy to trumpet the parts of the survey that support with its own agenda, the Daily Mail sneers at the ‘alarming complacency’ suggested by the nearly three-quarters of people who think our schools teach basic schools well.
Regardless, it’s not obvious how Gove’s plans will improve schools in the way people want. His anachronistic baccalaureate idea and intent to abolish coursework conflicts with the view, agreed with by six in ten people, that “schools focus too much on tests and exams and not enough on learning for its own sake”.
Satisfaction with the NHS is at its highest level ever, reflecting that people recognise and value the improvements made by Labour, particularly the successful introduction of maximum waiting times targets.
I never understood the right-wing war against NHS targets, especially considering (if my memory serves me correctly) they were introduced as a result of right-wing media pressure.
When Labour entered office in 1997, satisfaction with the NHS was at the lowest level (34%) since the survey began. In 2009, satisfaction reached the highest level since the survey began (64%). Even among Conservative supporters, satisfaction with the NHS is at its height.
Against this backdrop, you really have to wonder why the Tories are embarking on a highly controversial and extremely risky reorganisation of the NHS. Many would suggest the motivation is ideological. If this is the case, Tory ideology (and that of its right-wing supporters) is clearly not shared by the British public.
This is just a scraping of findings from the report’s executive summaries available online. Still, I think it’s pretty damn supportive of New Labour’s record and suggests the Tories should be careful.
The unexpected ambition of their education and health reforms are controversial at the moment. Considering they are completely out of line with what the public actually wants, when they are introduced the shit, as they say, could well and truly hit the fan.