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Don’t mistake the British public’s leftie economic views for liberalism

Half of Brits think gender equality has gone far enough. 

There exists in social psychology a well-documented phenomenon called the false-consensus effect – a natural tendency for people to think that their beliefs and values are more widely-held than they actually are. It explains, perhaps, why the data I’m about to present will shock many readers.

Last week’s once-in-a-parliament publication of the British Election Study’s (BES) 2017 random probability survey provides us with one of the most reliable barometers of public, across a wide range of topics.

Views that can be characterised as left-of-centre in an economic sense (in terms of the size and role of the state) are relatively popular. For example, 63 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that “ordinary working people get their fair share of the nation's wealth”, while 89 per cent thought that “putting more money into the health service” was very or fairly important.

But on other issues – the so-called “open versus closed” axis – much of the data will make far more difficult reading for progressives. Though no executions have taken place in Britain since 1964 – coincidentally the year of the first BES – 51 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed that “for some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence”.

Those backing measures to promote equality for ethnic minorities are themselves in a minority, with 56 per cent thinking that “attempts to give equal opportunities to black people and Asians in Britain” were either about right currently, or had already gone a little too far or much too far.

And although the percentage taking the view that “too many immigrants have been let into this country” had fallen by 10 points since 2015, at 62 per cent it remained a large majority, and even represented a substantial minority (38 per cent) among 2016 Remainers.

On the topical issue of gender equality, 51 per cent of people didn't think “attempts to ensure equality for women” needed to go further, within which an increased percentage (12 per cent, up 2 points from 2015) thought that they had already gone too far or much too far.

Though question formats and wordings are always the subject of debate, this, essentially, was public opinion in Great Britain in 2017.

Because the BES prioritises accuracy over speed, its fieldwork predates the #MeToo movement. But in recent conventional polling for the BBC, 39 per cent, including 34 per cent of women, told ComRes that it had gone too far – not majorities, but nevertheless eye-catchingly strongly opposition to a movement against sexual assault and harassment. For comparison, polls have found that the percentage of women identifying as feminists ranges from a similar share of around 1 in 3, down to fewer than 1 in 10, depending on methodology and question wording.

It is worth noting how sharply these views diverge from those within liberal circles, where the consensus is instead that men, white people and non-immigrants are intrinsically privileged and that much more needs to be done to address the situation.

The illusion that liberal viewpoints on these issues are “mainstream” may be reinforced by social media, which the BES separately shows is wildly unrepresentative of the wider population – with a strong left-of-centre and socially liberal lean ­– and to an even greater extent than in 2015.

It is also worth reconsidering, in the light of this data, the anger and resentment expressed in focus groups and on doorsteps about such prevalent socially conservative views being painted as bigoted, extreme or niche, when they are in fact held by majorities of British adults. Indeed, resentment aside, such characterisations may also misunderstand the attitudes in question. Many will oppose racism and sexism, but feel that equality has already been achieved – a view which, however disputed it may be by liberals, is semantically not the same as opposing equality itself.

These findings have a number of implications. For those of us who write or broadcast from a neutral perspective, but who live in urban areas, are surrounded by university graduates, diverse communities and people of below median age, and who are social media users (all of which are predictors of liberal attitudes), they are an important reminder that the values of those around us are not typical. What is accepted as a strong consensus in filter bubbles may in fact be anything but, and this arguably deserves greater consideration when thinking about impartiality.

For liberals, they highlight the need to broaden support and make the case for their values, and illustrate the trap of believing a liberal majority already exists on all issues and that further progress is impeded only by vested interests. The reality is that reintroducing capital punishment is relatively popular with the public, while pro-diversity measures and high levels of immigration are not. Repeatedly pushing through societal change risks being counterproductive in the long run if it does not enjoy popular support.

Matt Singh is the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, the political analysis site. 

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.