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No mass support for neoliberalism: the British Social Attitudes survey

January 27, 2010

Liam Mac Uaid has a downbeat post on the just-published 2009 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey results. The BSA attempts, every year, to capture the British public’s feelings on a huge range of issues. Here’s Liam:

…neo-liberal values are gaining a real grip on mass consciousness. The authors say ”only two in five people (39%) now support increased taxes and spending on health and education,the lowest level since 1984 and down from 62% in 1997.” They add that “support for redistribution from the better off to those who are less well off has dropped markedly. Fewer than two in five (38%) now think the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off, down from half (51%) in 1994.” In a nasty Thatcherite echo[, a] minority of one in five (21%) think unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship, compared with over half (53%) in 1994.

I think he’s got the wrong intepretation of the results. That shift on public spending has been taking place for nearly a decade, from a peak in 2002 when 63 per cent supported increased expendiute. But it’s not flipped over into support for axing public services. People want, instead, to maintain what they’ve got.

There is no mass support for Thatcherite spending cuts. Here’s what the report’s authors say:

Public support for increasing taxation and public spending is now at its lowest level since the early 1980s. 39% support this, down from 62% in 1997. Only 8% support cuts. The most popular view, held by 50%, is that spending and taxation levels should stay as they are.

Only 8 per cent of the population support cuts. That’s hardly compelling evidence of ‘neoliberal values’ gaining popular support. And it leaves 89 per cent wanting either the same spending levels, or an increase.

Set these broad-brush figures against more detailed work that finds over 70 per cent believing the gap between rich and poor is too large, or the 80 per cent wanting caps on corporate pay, and the situation is – at least – more complex than Liam suggests.

There’s no reason for complacency. Attitudes can shift. The Right is looking more organised. But the whiff of battles ahead should not mean conceding defeat now.

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