Four insights from new British Social Attitudes survey
Welcome to the 74the edition of The Week in Polls, written while I am at Liberal Democrat conference and doing my best to move the polls myself.1 This time, I’ve culled four insights from the new British Social Attitudes survey for your delectation.
Then it’s a look at the latest voting intention polls followed by, for paid-for subscribers, 10 insights from the last week’s polling and analysis. (If you’re a free subscriber, sign up for a free trial here to see what you’re missing.)
Meanwhile, this week’s quiet mutter of disappointment is trigged by the normally excellent Tim Shipman2 who wrote that in Autumn 2021 Boris Johnson was “riding high in the polls”. The Conservatives actually averaged only 38% in the autumnal polls, and Boris Johnson’s average score on the various pollster best PM questions was 37%. Rather than riding high, the party was part way through a long, sustained fall in the polls that continued into the following year.
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Four trends that are shaping our politics
The annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey - which I briefly did a little bit of promotional work for a few years back - has the time, budget and expertise to be a gold standard annual piece of research. In particular, it has the time and money to persistently track down people to get a high quality, truly representative sample.3
It also has run comparable questions for forty years now and so provides not only high quality answers but also long time series to put them in context.
Here are four insights from the latest results.
There’s been a rise in support for a larger, tax-funded state
The BSA finds:
By 2006, only 31% thought it was definitely the government’s responsibility to control prices, down from 59% in 1985. Now the figure stands at 68%.
In 1985, 45% reckoned it was definitely the government’s responsibility to reduce income differences between rich and poor. By 2006, only 25% expressed that view.
After the financial crash, 41% said the government should definitely reduce income differences and now, after COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis, 53% feel that way.
But it’s among older people that there’s been the biggest increase in support for more tax and spend
Despite older people being more likely to vote Conservative, they are also more likely to support increased taxes and spending. It’s a reminder that one of the aspects of Boris Johnson’s appeal in the 2019 election - which the right of the Conservatives tend to forget - was his promises to start spending more money on better public services. He wasn’t promising a low tax, small state version of Brexit; he was promising a Brexit with bigger public services.
Attitudes have become more positive towards welfare recipients
The BSA reports:
19% agree that most people who get social security don’t really deserve any help, down from a high of 40% in 2005. Responses in 2019-22 are the lowest since the question was first asked in 1987.
22% think that unemployment claimants are ‘fiddling in one way or another’, down from a high of 41% in 2004.
There has also been a rise in support for extra spending on benefits, but this rise has been more muted: 37% think that the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes, up from 29% in 2010…
The views of Labour and Conservative supporters have [changed] largely in parallel. In 2005, 49% of Conservative and 35% of Labour Party supporters agreed that many benefits recipients “don’t really deserve any help”; these figures now stand at 19% and 11% (a gap of 8 percentage points).
The cause of the change in attitudes is difficult to discern and not due to one single factor. It appears to have been occasioned by a combination of several factors, including changing political discourses, more positive coverage in all newspapers, decreasing welfare generosity, and the perception that poverty has risen.
Previous rounds of culture wars have been consistently lost by the right
To quote the BSA:
81% think it is all right for a couple to live together without being married, up from 64% in 1994.
67% think a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex is never wrong, compared with 17% in 1983.
45% disagree that people who want children ought to get married (24% agree) and 50% agree one parent can bring up a child as well as two (31% disagree).
Agreement that a man’s job is to earn money and a woman’s is to look after the home and family has declined by 39 percentage points since 1987, from 48% to 9% in 2022.
Only around 1 in 10 (12%) people now agree that ‘a job is all right but what most women really want is a home and children,’ compared to 1 in 3 (31%) in 1989.
Agreement with the view that a pre-school child is likely to suffer if his/her mother works has declined from 46% in 1989 to 21% now.
What I find most striking about the picture the BSA paints is how different it is from the one implied by right-wing commentators and those on the right of the Conservative Party. In their world, the public wants lowers taxes, a smaller state and to hear lots about culture wars. Looking at the BSA data, it’s hard to see how this approach would work (and the current voting intention polls suggest it isn’t working).
Know other people interested in political polling?
National voting intention polls
Once again, it a week without a poll putting the Conservatives on more than 30%, extending the run stretching back to late June (when a Savanta poll gave them 31%).
Here are the latest figures from each currently active pollster:
Last week’s edition
What the public thinks of net zero, and other polling news
The following 10 findings from the most recent polls and analysis are for paying subscribers only, but you can sign up for a free trial to read them straight away.
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