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The public want a better state, not a smaller one

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

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

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.