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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.