Issue 215 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: An attitude problem?

Clare Fermont

The latest British Social Attitudes survey shows how public opinion is often to the left of New Labour.

WELFARE STATE

British Social Attitudes:
The public shows almost no concern about 'scrounging'. In fact, nearly half of the population agrees that 'benefits for unemployed people are too low and cause hardship'.

New Labour attitudes:
Blair says, 'We are committed to taking tough action on social security and housing benefit fraud' (November 1997). Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, says raising benefits would show 'we have failed to learn from the past' (November 1997). Lone parents to lose up to 11 a week through benefit cuts.

NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE

British Social Attitudes:
90 percent of people believe the government should 'spend more' or 'much more' on the NHS to reduce waiting lists etc. Since 1983 the proportion of people naming health as a first priority for public spending has risen from 63 percent to 80 percent. In the same period, the level of satisfaction with NHS dentists crashed from 73 percent to 52 percent.

New Labour attitudes:
After an average annual increase of spending on the NHS of 4 percent in real terms for the past four years, 1997's plan involves a 1.2 percent increase, with just 0.2 percent and 0.1 percent for the next two years respectively.
A further 50,000 people have joined hospital waiting lists since New Labour was elected. Some 1.2 million people are now waiting.

TAXATION

British Social Attitudes:
Increasing numbers of people want to see more public spending on services such as health and education even if it means higher taxes. Less than 4 percent would like to see lower taxes and reduced welfare spending, compared with nearly 60 percent who would like to see increased taxes and more spent.

New Labour attitudes:
Almost the first words of Tony Blair as prime minister in parliament were, 'We have reached the limits of the public's willingness simply to fund an unreformed welfare system through ever higher taxes and spending.'
The only new income tax introduced by New Labour is for graduate students, to pay back their loans.
Gordon Brown says his aim is to reduce the starting rate of income tax to 10 percent.

RELIGION

British Social Attitudes:
Over 42 percent of people regard themselves as having no religion - considerably more than identify themselves as Church of England/Anglican (29 percent).

New Labour attitudes:
From 1995 Blair increasingly emphasises his Christian values.
In 1996 he gives a lengthy interview to the Sunday Telegraph on how Christianity informs his politics.

PAY DIFFERENTIAL

British Social Attitudes:
By the 1990s the gap between the pay of high and low earners was wider than at any time since figures were first compiled in 1886. Almost everyone (87 percent) thought the gap was 'too large' by 1994.

New Labour attitudes:
Harriet Harman says, 'The best way to deal with inequality in income is through education and work opportunities' (July 1997). Gordon Brown says, 'Labour is not against wealth, nor will we seek to penalise it' (1993).

BIG BUSINESS

British Social Attitudes:
The majority of people, 59 percent, think that 'big business benefits owners at the expense of workers'.

New Labour attitudes:
Gordon Brown calls for workers to hold down wages but promises to hand out 750 million a year to big business by cutting corporation tax (November 1997). Blair tells the Guardian, 'You can measure how well you're doing by the number of invitations you get to address businessmen' (1991).

CLASS

British Social Attitudes:
Nearly 69 percent of people think a person's social class affects his or her opportunities 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot'.

New Labour attitudes:
Blair says, 'Our aim is a country that is proud to call itself one nation' (April 1995). 'The successful firm today works through partnership. Class distinctions are unhelpful and divisive' (January 1996).

POWER OF UNIONS

British Social Attitudes:
Over half employees thought that unions had 'too much power' in 1983: now the figure has fallen to 15 percent. Between 1985 and 1996 the percentage of people who thought a national strike of all workers against the government should not be allowed fell from 52 percent to 35 percent.

New Labour attitudes:
Tony Blair says, 'The key elements of the 1980s legislation affecting trade unions will be retained' (May 1995). 'Trade unions will get no special favours' (January 1996). 'We all have to be flexible workers, and employment laws must reflect this' (October 1995).

MONARCHY

British Social Attitudes:
Public support for the monarchy has plummeted from nearly two thirds (65 percent) in 1983, who thought it was 'very important', to less than a third (32 percent) in 1996.

New Labour attitudes:
Blair says, 'You are our queen. We respect and cherish you. You are, simply, the best of British' (November 1997).

PENSIONS

British Social Attitudes:
76 percent of people think that the government should 'spend more' or 'much more' on pensions.

New Labour attitudes:
New Labour's failure to restore the link between pension increases and average earning increases robs single pensioners of 24 a week. Frank Field proposes forced private pensions to reduce state spending on pensions.

MAIN POLITICAL PARTIES

British Social Attitudes:
Cynicism about political parties has sharply increased. Three quarters of the population trust government of any party 'only some of the time' or 'almost never'.

New Labour attitudes:
Blair says, 'I think most people who have dealt with me think I am a pretty straight sort of guy, and I am' (November 1997).

CRIME

British Social Attitudes:
Only towards lawbreakers did public opinion become less liberal under the Tories. For instance, over 70 percent think they should be given stiffer sentences.

New Labour attitudes:
Jack Straw promises 'zero tolerance' for young offenders and proposes to abolish conditional discharges for young people (to put more kids in jail) and to scrap legal aid for some civil cases.


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