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13 December 2010

The British public still wants a more equal society

Britain favours the Japanese route to equality: less redistribution but more equal wages.

By George Eaton

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey has been cited as proof that the country is now “more Thatcherite” than in the 1980s.

And, it’s true, several findings make grim reading for progressives. Only one-third (36 per cent) think that the government should redistribute income from the rich to the poor, down from half (51 per cent) in 1989. In addition, just 27 per cent believe that the state should spend more on benefits, down from 58 per cent in 1991. But both findings are more ambiguous than they appear. New Labour’s failure to present the honest case for redistribution and higher welfare spending meant that the arguments simply weren’t heard.

Fortunately, the rest of the survey offers plenty of evidence that Britain is a social-democratic country at heart. For instance, 78 per cent now believe that the income gap between rich and poor is too large, a finding that suggests the desire for a more equal society hasn’t gone away. After all, as the authors of The Spirit Level point out, there are many different routes to income equality.

Sweden gets there through redistributive taxation and generous benefits, but Japan (the most equal country in the world) gets there by having far less disparate wages to begin with. Judging by its antipathy to redistribution, the British public prefers the Japanese route. More than half (54 per cent) also support an increase in the minimum wage, and the majority believe that the chief executive of a large company should earn only up to six times more than an unskilled factory worker.

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There is also indisputable evidence that Labour’s public spending increases coincided with a rise in user satisfaction. An impressive 64 per cent are now satisfied with the way the NHS is run, up from just 34 per cent in 1997. Similarly, 73 per cent are satisfied with the “teaching of basic skills”, up from 56 per cent in 1996.

New Labour’s failure to receive due credit for these improvements will be recorded as a historic failure.