The latest British Social Attitudes survey makes grim reading for progressives. The public are increasingly individualistic and less concerned with inequality and climate change than they were a decade ago.
Most voters (74 per cent) continue to believe that inequality is too large (down from 82 per cent in 2000) but just 34 per cent believe the government should redistribute more to solve the problem. Elsewhere, the percentage who believe that benefits for the unemployed are too high has risen from 37 per cent in 2000 to 55 per cent in 2010. This is all the more galling since inequality has continued to rise and benefits have failed to keep pace with earnings.
Worst of all, the left has lost the argument won by Tony Blair – that taxes should be increased to fund higher spending on health, education and social benefits. Just 30 per cent now believe that they should, down from 61 per cent in 2002. However, this undoubtedly reflects the fact that spending increased significantly during the Labour years. In other words, the NHS should now prioritise greater efficiency. Satisfaction with the health service (70%) is at its highest level ever recorded by the survey.
On climate change, just 26 per cent now say they would be willing to pay “much higher prices” to protect the environment, down from 43 per cent a decade ago, while just 22 per cent say they would be willing to pay “much higher taxes”, down from 31 per cent a decade ago. In addition, 37 per cent think many claims about environmental threats are exaggerated, up from 24 per cent in 2000.
There is some consolation for the left on child poverty. The overwhelming majority of voters (82 per cent) believe that child poverty is “very important” and that it is up to central government to reduce it (79 per cent). But in general, the survey is an uncomfortable reminder that the left rarely prospers in times of austerity. Voters tend to become more socially conservative and more economically liberal. As Gavin Kelly, NS blogger and chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, notes: “In pressing times people are more likely to be concerned with protecting what they have rather than tackling shared problems.” This goes some way to explaining why Labour is still struggling to open a large poll lead over the Conservatives. The challenge facing Ed Miliband is to win the argument for greater equality in an increasingly selfish society.