The public want a better state, not a smaller one

New Fabian Society research shows enduring support for government-funded public services.

This year’s US presidential election is a contest about the role of the state. Mitt Romney and his running-mate Paul Ryan offer American voters the choice of a radical small-state political economy, with less tax and much less public provision. Their prospectus is backed by a philosophy, championed by the Tea Party, which calls into question the very legitimacy of government action. Against them, Barack Obama offers a more European model of state-funded social entitlements. American politics may have plenty of faults, but shirking big debates is not among them.

A powerful strand in British political thinking has adopted a diluted version of US anti-state rhetoric. A combination of fiscal pressure and a reaction to New Labour’s centralist statecraft has led to a range of calls for a "smaller" state, which often conflate financial and organisational arguments. This is seen in the coalition government’s advocacy of "the big society" as something  ‘big state’. Even within Labour, parts of 2011’s The Purple Book argued in favour of "leaving the big state behind".

But the Fabian Society's new report No Right Turn challenges this presumption. 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. It is not the state in itself, but the values and ethos that state activity represents which matter.

People respond far more favourably to pro-state arguments than almost all of the arguments against strong state intervention. The most popular statement in favour of the state was one that saw public services as a system which we all put into and, at one point or another, get some return from. Egalitarian arguments stating that public services should be provided to all, regardless of ability to pay, also received strong support.

There are some conditions on the public’s support for the state. Conservative voters stand out from other voters, with all of our anti-state arguments enjoying a positive response from them. Labour, Liberal Democrat and, crucially, swing voters are all much less sympathetic to the idea of a smaller state or more private service provision. For these voters, including those who will decide the outcome of the next election, the values and ethos of the public good remain central to their expectations of public services.

A more difficult challenge is posed by continuing public concerns about welfare dependency. The only anti-state argument to enjoy a positive response across-the-board was that a strong state makes people more reliant. Labour has struggled to find ideas and language to respond to these concerns but if it does there is real prize. If the party can assuage fears about dependency then support for state action will become even more entrenched.

The Fabian research shows there is little appetite for a rapid roll-back of public services in Britain. The Ryan plan would receive short shrift from a public that is largely signed-up to public services based on values of the public good. If Labour can successfully answer the tough questions on welfare dependency, it can be confident that when it defends the state it will get a fair hearing from a public who want strong government-funded services.

The Fabian Society's new report No Right Turn: Britain’s enduring support for public services is published today.

Demonstrators protest against the government's Health and Social Care Bill in London, on January 31, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad