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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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