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21 October 2021

Did Covid-19 push public opinion in a more left-wing direction?

The landmark British Social Attitudes survey reveals a public more aware of inequality and sympathetic to welfare. But pollster John Curtice warns this isn’t a “reset moment”.

By Anoosh Chakelian and Polly Bindman

On the anniversary of the first lockdown, I wrote a piece for the New Statesman magazine about how far the pandemic was “resetting” our relationship with work, leisure, welfare and care.

I spoke to a range of people whose lives and values had changed wholesale in the age of Covid-19: a businesswoman who had earned a six-figure salary at a bluechip company now relying on Universal Credit; an events executive who had been furloughed – paid to do nothing – for a year; a CEO who had given all his staff a four-day week.

Such stories and the dramatic shifts in where and how we worked suggested the pandemic was an opportunity to rethink our priorities as a society. Since then, there has been some evidence of this reset, at least on the part of individuals.

More than three-quarters of British people say the pandemic has made them reconsider what’s most important in their lives, according to a report titled How Covid Changed Our Minds published in July 2021 by the Global Future think tank. A September 2020 study by the insurer Aviva found that 2.4 million Britons are planning to switch to an entirely different career path in the year ahead as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

All of this was speculative until the release of the landmark British Social Attitudes survey today (21 October), which suggests there have been significant (though not unprecedented) shifts in the British public’s outlook since before the pandemic. The National Centre for Social Research has published the results of this year’s British Social Attitudes survey, the UK’s most important and longest-running tracker of British public opinion – based on a special online survey carried out in July 2020 and the regular British Social Attitudes annual survey carried out towards the end of that year.

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It shows notable changes in attitudes towards both inequality and welfare. Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) agreed that “ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”. This figure is up from 57 per cent in 2019 and higher than in any year since 1998.

The same proportion (64 per cent) agreed that there is “one law for the rich and one for the poor”, up from 56 per cent in 2019. The figure has not been higher than this at any time since 1997.

Data by Polly Bindman

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Attitudes towards the unemployed had already become more liberal before the pandemic started – and this shift continued throughout the crisis. The proportion who agreed that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one had fallen from 69 per cent in 2005 to 51 per cent in 2019 – it is even lower in the latest survey, at 42 per cent, its lowest point since 1996.

In 2007, just 7 per cent named benefits for the unemployed as one of their top two priorities for extra government spending. By 2018, this had risen to 15 per cent, while in the most recent survey it was chosen by nearly a quarter of respondents (24 per cent).

Prior to the pandemic, there had already been a sharp fall – from 77 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent in 2019 – in the proportion who felt benefits for the unemployed were “too high”, and therefore discouraged people from working; rather than felt they were too low and caused hardship.

In the latest survey, for the first time since 2000, the latter view is the most popular of the two attitudes towards welfare – with just 45 per cent saying benefits are too high and disincentivise finding a job.

Yet these shifts come with caveats. Increased perception of inequality has not translated into more support for redistribution of wealth. Although the proportion agreeing with the statement that “the government should redistribute income from the better-off to the less well-off” rose from 39 per cent in 2019 to 46 per cent, the proportion disagreeing also increased, from 27 per cent to 30 per cent.

The UK’s beloved polling guru and long-time tracker of public opinion, John Curtice, a senior fellow at the National Centre for Social Research behind this report, reminded me that the results on inequality do not take the UK into “uncharted territory”.

This is because people in the 1980s and 1990s had a higher perception of inequality than they have done in the years since.

It’s a similar story for welfare. “With welfare, we’re still not as favourable towards working-age welfare as we were under Thatcher,” he said.

“Attitudes have been shifting quite markedly since basically the middle of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition,” Curtice said. “So when we went into the pandemic, attitudes towards working-age welfare were already much more favourable than they had been basically ever since the advent of New Labour.

“New Labour just dragged the electorate very strongly away from backing working-age welfare.”

Indeed, the 1990s precedents perhaps say more about the intervening years than today’s mentality. “If you look at these graphs, they remind you of the story about New Labour. One of the myths about Tony Blair is that he simply took the Labour Party to where the electorate was – no, no, no – Tony Blair achieved what Margaret Thatcher set out to achieve and failed, which was to move the actual dial of public opinion.”

The realistic picture, Curtice said, is that society was already becoming more sympathetic towards working-age welfare, and that mood has been maintained through the crisis.

Failing to detect a pandemic-fuelled revolution in public opinion, Curtice believed “we are not looking at a society which is dramatically and fundamentally different from what we have previously known”.

He recalled “a lot of liberal elite commentators said ‘oh gosh, this provides an opportunity to reshape society in the direction that I, of course, personally have been in favour of ever since the beginning of my working life’”.

He said “when looking at the public opinion landscape, the idea that it is ready for a ‘reset’ moment” ignores the patterns already forming a decade ago. Yet a change in public opinion on social justice issues reflecting the mood of the nation in the early days of the last Labour government presents an opportunity for Keir Starmer’s Labour.

Other notable findings include trust in government rising, an enduring divide between the outlook of Brexiteers and Remainers, and a greater scepticism of authority: