Support for higher public spending rises after Osborne's cuts

The number who want higher spending, even with higher taxes, has risen for the first time in nine years.

The majority of George Osborne's cuts are still to come but support for higher public spending, even if it means higher taxes, has already increased. Last year, according to the 2012 British Social Attitudes report, thirty six per cent of people said they wanted to see the government "increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits", up from 31% in 2010 and the first increase for nearly a decade (see graph below). The majority (55%) said they would like to see spending levels remain the same, while just six per cent favoured lower taxes and lower spending.

Since around 88% of the coalition's cuts have yet to be made, this is likely to be the beginning of a shift back towards support for a larger state. In 1991, for instance, after the Thatcher government's comparatively minor cuts, 65 per cent said they wanted to see taxes and spending rise but this figure fell in response to Labour's spending increases.

Public support for higher spending rose from 31% in 2010 to 36% last year.

With some Conservatives arguing that the ring-fence on NHS spending should be removed, it's also worth noting that 68 per cent chose health as their first or second priority for extra government spending, with education in second place on 61 per cent, followed by police and prisons (15 per cent) and housing (14 per cent). Expect Tory MPs, angered by the coalition's decision to increase spending on international development by 35 per cent, to highlight the fact that overseas aid finished bottom, with just one per cent citing it as a spending priority. By contrast, 10 per cent favoured higher spending on defence, the one budget many Conservatives would like to see protected.

The right will also draw comfort from clear support for a more restrictive welfare system. During the early-1990s recession, 58 per cent wanted to see more spending on welfare benefits but now just 28 per cent do. Only 59 per cent agree that the government should be the main provider of support to the unemployed, down from 88 per cent a decade ago. Support for spending more on the disabled, traditionally viewed as the most deserving group, has also declined, although given the media's demonisation of welfare receipients this is perhaps unsurprising. Since 2008, the proportion saying that spending on disabled benefits should be increased has declined significantly from 63 per cent to 53 per cent. As the report notes, "This trend is not just a cyclical response to the ups and downs of economic activity; it suggests a fundamental long-term change in attitudes towards welfare and benefit recipients."

On immigration, while 51 per cent would like to see levels reduced "a lot" (up from 39 per cent in 1995) and a further 24 per cent would like to see levels reduced "a little", there is strong support for skilled migration. In total, 63 per cent say that skilled migration from eastern Europe is "good" or "very good" for Britain, while 61 per cent say the same about skilled migration "from Muslim countries like Pakistan".

Ed Miliband has been criticised by some on the left for responding to public concern about welfare and immigration but these findings suggest he is right to argue that Labour cannot be seen to accept the status quo. In the case of welfare, that means support for a more contributory system, and in the case of immigration, that means tighter regulation of the labour market to ensure that bosses cannot use foreign workers to undercut domestic wages.

Support for higher public spending has risen since George Osborne's cuts programme began. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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