Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Britain in decline?

Spin doctors need miracles

Julie Waterson looks at the contradictory views to be found in a new survey
Over 80 percent of people think the gap between rich and poor is too wide
Over 80 percent of people think the gap between rich and poor is too wide

Tony Blair will think he's reading a horror story if he picks up the latest British Social Attitudes survey, whose findings demonstrate deeply held beliefs that are in direct conflict to the capitalist system and New Labour's neoliberal agenda. The majority, irrespective of their class background, reject the drive by New Labour to privatise. There is similar unity, although in smaller numbers, when it comes to favouring redistribution of wealth and greater health spending.

The relentless drive to privatise the NHS does not appear popular. Only 8 percent support charging for visiting your doctor and 17 percent support charges for home visits by your doctor. Only 7 percent think that the NHS caters 'very well' for everyone's medical needs.

Lower taxation is deemed a popular vote catcher, yet nearly six out of ten people favour an increase in taxes for more spending on health, education and social benefits. A mere 4 percent want lower taxes.

Over 80 percent of people believe that 'the gap between high and low incomes is too large', again irrespective of their class background. Even where New Labour thinks it can exploit notions of self interest it falls short. Take Labour's intention to sell off all public housing stock--73 percent of council tenants say their local authority is their first choice as landlord, even if only just over a half think that estates are 'generally pleasant places to live'. Over a quarter of housing association tenants would prefer to be council tenants!

While New Labour wants to privatise the welfare state, the vast majority are committed to retaining it. With only months to the general election, Blair and his spin doctors need to perform miracles to overcome this ideological resistance.

So what does this survey tell us about the possibilities of this ideological resistance being matched with physical and and political resistance? Superficially, young people would appear to be less interested in politics than older people. A mere one in ten profess to have any real interest in politics, compared to one in three aged 65 or over. Less than one in three young people are attached to a political party, while nearly half of those over 65 are.

But what 'politics' are they talking about? The experience in the last year from the 'battle of Seattle' has been a movement of young people who have come together precisely because of their opposition to established politics and political parties. Yet this is not directly reflected in the survey. What is reflected is that the views held, and fought for, by many young people are shared by many older people too.

But there are other ideas highlighted in the survey which appear to be in direct contradiction to socially progressive opinions. 'It amounts to a potentially powerful right wing appeal', the survey concludes, adding that 'the key issue then is whether these sorts of social issues count for votes'. Hague, Widdecombe and the Tories have lurched to the right, playing the race card. Shaw's condemnation of the Tories rings hollow, when considering New Labour's drive to authoritarianism on law and order, asylum seekers, single parents and the unemployed.

This poses an immediate challenge for socialists, particularly in the run-up to the next election. Our aim must be to prevent the Tories and the right gaining from the discontent and bitterness inside the working class by fighting for a socialist alternative.

The press and the Tories have crudely interpreted these findings, but closer examination reveals a more complex picture. It is on the social issues that we see the greatest class divide. The authors note that the only time this has ever happened in the 17 years of doing the survey was in 1983 over nuclear weapons.

One in three people from the middle class think that 'immigrants take jobs away from people born in Britain, while 57 percent of working class people think so.

On race equality 39 percent of workers think attempts to give black and Asian people equal opportunities have gone too far, compared to 30 percent of the middle classes. The most racist are the self employed, with almost half of self employed people thinking this.

On Europe three quarters of the working class are for keeping the pound, compared to 58 percent of the self employed and 43 percent of the middle classes. Again, this demonstrates a base of support which could be tapped by the right wing or alternatively that could be overcome by fighting against a bosses' Europe.

More progressive views on sexuality exist among younger people, but not everyone over 50 is a reactionary, although six in ten workers think homosexuality is 'wrong' compared to 37 percent of the middle class. More than one in three young people see 'nothing wrong' with homosexuality, with just less than one in ten over 65s sharing that view.

The notion of the virgin bride and 'happily ever after' is fast becoming a thing of the past. Some 63 percent of young people consider premarital sex as 'not wrong at all' while 24 percent of over 65s agree.

The survey shows how people are holding contradictory views. Undoubtedly, it is not good news for New Labour, but it also demonstrates the urgency with which socialists need to fight for a future where the left dominates and not the right.

  • British Social Attitudes: Focusing on Diversity. The 17th Report, National Centre for Social Research, Sage Publications £35
    Note: The survey interviewed 3,000 people, from all classes and age groups. The categories used: 'middle class' are higher and lower level professionals and managers; 'working class' are those who work in manual occupations including skilled workers; and the 'self employed' are farmers, small businessmen and the self employed.

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