By Michael Lavalette
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British Politics: A Matter of Opinion

This article is over 18 years, 7 months old
The latest British Social Attitudes survey contains many indicators that our strategy is correct - and a few surprises.
Issue 281

The National Centre for Social Research has just published the 2003/04 edition of the British Social Attitudes survey. This is the 20th report in a series that began in 1983, and over this time the report has established a reputation for itself as the authoritative source on contemporary values and attitudes in Britain.

Interestingly the subtitle this year is ‘Continuity and change over two decades’. The report looks back over previous studies ‘paying particular attention to the myriad ways in which Britain’s attitudes and values have changed over the last two decades – and to the many areas in which they have remained remarkably constant over time’. There is no doubt that this provides some fascinating material and substantial evidence that, despite the years of governmental neoliberalism and privatisation under Thatcher, Major and Blair, we remain deeply committed to state welfare provision, increasing taxation on the rich to pay for better services, and greater equality.

Social spending

The survey includes several questions on our attitude to public spending. Every survey since 1983 has given respondents three alternatives with regard to government social spending. It asks for their preference for government strategy: reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits; keep taxes and spending on these services at the same level as now; or increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits. In 1983 – at a time when Thatcher was attacking the welfare state and carrying out cuts – the results suggested that 54 percent of respondents wanted spending to stay the same, 32 percent wanted it increased, and only 9 percent agreed with the government and felt we should cut taxes and spending.

Every subsequent report has indicated increasing numbers wanting increased taxation and social spending – now the figures suggest 63 percent want these things.

The reasons for this are not hard to find in the report. It indicates that there is increasing dissatisfaction with the way the NHS is run (25 percent in 1983, 41 percent today) compared with those who are satisfied (55 percent, 40 percent), and a large core who are opposed to a two-tier NHS (64 percent in 1983, 73 percent today).

The section on education suggests that most of us think we can solve the problems that exist by investing in schools and teachers. This report indicates well over 50 percent of people want more investment: to provide smaller class sizes (of which 41 percent in primary schools, 27 percent in secondary schools); to provide more resources for buildings and books (14 percent in primary schools, 14 percent in secondary); and to invest more in teacher training (16 percent in primary, 18 percent in secondary).

Further, it seems people are pretty clear about the reasons for all this. In the early reports (this time 1984 is the base year) 75 percent thought the income gap in Britain was too great – this has now increased to 82 percent (even 71 percent of Tory voters think this!). Sixty percent in the present report thought ‘ordinary working people’ did not get their fair share in society, while 76 percent think high income groups should pay a larger (or much larger) share of their income in taxes compared to people on low incomes.

One interesting aside to this general picture is the attitude of party supporters to questions of redistribution. While Tory members’ and supporters’ views have remained fairly consistent in their opposition to redistribution, there has been a decline in support for redistributive policies from Labour members and supporters – which provides an interesting indication of the ideological commitments, and perhaps class backgrounds, of New Labour members and close adherents.

The report also provides evidence of a greater commitment to equality, not just in terms of the issues of redistribution but also in terms of the extension of ‘equal rights’. Sixty seven percent in today’s survey describe themselves as not ‘racially prejudiced’, and only 20 percent of men (and 15 percent of women) suggest that it is a woman’s job to look after the home – though 22 percent of men and 35 percent of women regularly find themselves too tired to do housework.

This overview suggests that British people have what we might call ‘a grounded – and contradictory – social democratic consciousness’.

The survey reflects people’s aspirations for a slightly better world. They want better services, a fairer and more just world, they are against increased inequality, they are by and large not overtly racist, and they support the extension of women’s rights. And clearly they want these things in present society – so they want the rich to pay more and want to see less inequality.

But there are two things we cannot ignore in all this. The first is that the survey also reveals some less appealing values. Around crime, disorder and the activities of young people, for example, the survey suggests a more authoritarian trend. Yet this is perhaps less surprising when we think of the level of political and media focus on young people and ‘anti-social behaviour’ in recent years.

Attitudes are shaped – to a great degree – by the circumstances we find ourselves in. Life in a class-divided, alienated society brings experiences that both unite and divide us. Our experiences – at work, in our communities – create the space for the development of collective aspirations for a better world. But life is also structured by inequalities, division, cuts, scarcity and competition, and in this context division can foment. It would be surprising indeed if these surveys did not suggest a ‘contradictory consciousness’ – because we live in a contradictory world.

Finally, having a social democratic consciousness is not the same as voting for the dominant and traditional social democratic party – the Labour Party.

Political participation

This year’s survey is interesting because it focuses on political participation. It notes the sharp decline in voter participation – but also the increased politicisation that is taking place in society. It notes the scale of the mobilisations and protests that have shaped the last two years but ‘worries’ that this is not finding a legitimate political outlet.

It then goes on to provide evidence that suggests that there is more to politics than voting. We find there has been a significant increase in what the report calls ‘protest potential’. That is, those who are prepared to sign petitions has increased from 55 percent (in 1983) to 63 percent (today), those who would contact their MP has gone up (46 percent 1983, 51 percent today), those prepared to go on a demo (8 percent to 18 percent) and those willing to contact the media (14 percent to 27 percent). And more importantly this protest potential seems to have been fulfilled as more people actually report having undertaken each of the activities listed above.

The report’s conclusion is that ‘it is quite clear that the decline in turnout at recent British elections is not part of any wider refusal by the public to become involved in the political process’.

And this is perhaps the appropriate point to draw our conclusions. The forthcoming year sets us many tasks – to deepen the political opposition on the streets, to expand the rank and file movement within the unions, and to offer a challenge to New Labour in the June elections. The new unity coalition gives us our best opportunity for many a year to establish a credible electoral challenge to Labour. The evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey suggests that if we get it right we may be able to tap into the growing disillusionment with mainstream politics and establish an organisation committed to redistribution and the public services which many hold as essential to their own world outlook.


Since 1989, no less than 80 percent of respondents have believed that the income gap between the rich and poor is ‘too large’.

Fifty eight percent believe it is the government’s responsibility to reduce income inequality.

‘People’s solution to the “wages gap” tends to involve a dramatic lowering of salaries for higher income earners’ says the BSA survey.


‘When it comes to left and right wing values, class still matters,’ according to the BSA survey. ‘Nearly a third (30 percent) of those in professional and managerial groups have views at the most right wing end of the spectrum, compared with only 9 percent of those in the working class. And those in the working class are twice as likely as those in professional and managerial groups to have very left wing values. For example, almost three quarters (72 percent) of the working class think that the law treats rich and poor differently.’

British Social Attitudes: The 20th Report is published by Sage, £37.50

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