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.

Jeremy Corbyn in Crewe. Photo: Getty
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Is it too late to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader before the general election?

Make no mistake, replacing the Labour leader now would terrify the Tories. 

Received wisdom states that Jeremy Corbyn’s position in the Labour party is guaranteed, at least for the next six weeks, until the general election on 8 June. However, this belief is in large part down to polls conducted earlier this year among the Labour membership, which showed continued support for him.

In light of the changing political landscape, and the looming General Election, these polls should be revisited. It is clear they offer enough cause for hope to Labour moderates who might be willing to take the risk of removing Corbyn before the country makes this decision for them.

If you listen to pollsters talk about their surveys, one of the most common refrains you'll hear is that the results are "a snapshot, not a prediction". During the peacetime years between elections, this claim is made for solid reasons. With an election years away, polls offer the public a risk-free method to register dissatisfaction or support for a political parties and politician without consequence.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the polls we’ve seen in the past week. In every poll conducted after May's announcement on an early election, there has been a rise in the Tory lead. Elections focus minds and the risk-free toying with another party is no more; the public now need to make a decision about who they'll vote for in a little over a month and this decision matters.

Back in March, just 35 per cent of Labour members thought it likely that Corbyn would lead Labour to victory at the next election - yet they still supported him (PDF). Many commentators and Labour moderates asked why. They couldn't understand why the members would support someone who was so clearly electoral kryptonite.

The reason is relatively straightforward. The election was still years off and Corbyn was doing, for the members, a vital job in repositioning Labour on the left. With an election so far away, it didn't matter how Labour were performing in the polls, it was risk-free to support Corbyn.

The early election changes all that and the question is no longer about whether another leader gives Labour a better chance of winning but whether another leader gives Labour a better chance at surviving.

In the last poll published on Labour members, a majority wanted Corbyn to either step down immediately (36%) or before the next election (14%). Just 44% wanted him to lead Labour into the next General Election. With May’s announcement of a vote on 8 June, Labour's existential crisis has been brought forward by three years and it is likely that 14% who thought Corbyn should step down before the next election would side with those who wanted Corbyn gone immediately rather than those who wanted him to fight on in 2020.

There is also an argument to be made that the 44% who wanted Jeremy to fight the next election assumed he would have three more years to grow into the role and turn Labour’s fortunes around and these members could easily be swayed from their support given the change in terms the early election brings about.

What's more, 68% of Labour members felt Corbyn should go if Labour lost the next election and this includes 42% of those who say they would definitely/probably vote for Jeremy at a future leadership election. Only the most hardcore Corbyn supporters still believe he has a chance of victory in a few weeks. So, faced with the prospect of Jeremy going in June, after a heavy defeat, or now - giving Labour a better chance - many would reluctantly go for the latter.  

So how can Jeremy be removed? There are three things that need to happen. Firstly, pick the right candidate. For a new leader to have any impact with the public, it has to be someone who is not associated with Corbyn. However, to win over the members, the candidate cannot be seen as an instigator in the coup last year.  It would also be wise to choose someone the public are at least partly familiar with. This is a narrow pool but there are MPs who meet this requirement and could get through a leadership election and limit Labour losses.  

Secondly, limit the selectorate to the members. There is no time to vet 10s or 100,000s of new voters and they are unlikely to be favourable to an Anyone-But-Corbyn candidate. Among current members, Corbyn can be defeated and that must be the battle on which any leadership election was fought.

Finally, remove the risk of a centrist takeover in Labour members' minds by committing to a further leadership election in six months' time. Make it clear that Jeremy Corbyn needs to go - but that this isn't the end for his supporters. Any new leader is just an interim measure, someone who can limit the losses and give Labour the chance to fight again. Position yourself like the football manager who comes in three matches before the end of the season, promising to save the club from relegation before handing over to someone more suited to their team.

Make no mistake, replacing the Labour leader now would terrify the Tories. Their attacks on Corbyn will be worthless and new leaders typically enjoy a honeymoon period which would come at the perfect time. There are risks, of course, but the greater risk is in allowing Corbyn to lead Labour to a defeat from which there may be no return.

Laurence Janta-Lipinski is a former pollster with YouGov and now a freelance political consultant. He tweets at @jantalipinski

 

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