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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.