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Ideology & attitudes

How much have social attitudes changed in Britain over the past two decades? What effect have years of Tory and New Labour neo-liberal ideology had on the thinking of British people? CHRISTINE THOMAS looks at the British Social Attitudes 20th anniversary report.

British Social Attitudes: continuity & change over two decades. Sage Publications, 2003, £37-50 (hdbk)

SOCIAL ATTITUDE SURVEYS always have to be approached with a certain caution. Often they are a mere snapshot of public opinion at any particular time. And of course, how questions are posed can influence the answers received, sometimes resulting in contradictory responses. Nevertheless, the British Social Attitudes 20th anniversary report is a fascinating publication, charting the evolution of attitudes since the very first survey in 1983. The information is clearly presented and where data is analysed it is done so carefully, tentatively weighing up possible explanations for changes which have occurred.

In the recent debate over tuition fees, Blair argued that it was right to ask individual students to pay towards their education because the alternative would be to increase general taxation. Why, he argued, should the dustman have to pay for the sons and daughters of the rich to go to university? The report shows, however, that in general people support higher taxation in order to increase spending on health, education and social benefits.

When the first British Social Attitudes survey was carried out in 1983, a majority of respondents thought that taxes and welfare spending should be kept at the level they were already at. During the 1980s the balance shifted towards higher taxes and higher spending, so that by 2002, 63% wanted both to increase. Although, as the report points out, "people rarely imagine that they themselves will fall into the high income groups which might be required to pay a much larger share of their salary", it is nevertheless significant that there is such support for higher taxation and higher public spending given the ideology that has emanated from both Tories and New Labour on this question over the past few years.

The NHS consistently comes top of people’s spending priorities, and there is strong support for improved spending on education. The report identifies a link between dissatisfaction with the NHS and support for higher taxation and increased public spending; and satisfaction has been on a downward path since 1983. It concludes that "it seems that the sort of NHS we want is one that receives priority above all other government spending programmes for any extra resources, and which is funded through general taxation. And a key defining feature of the NHS remains one of universal access, with no ‘opting out’ of tax obligations".


RECENTLY, NATIONAL UNION of Teachers (NUT) members voted 86% in favour of boycotting SATs – the ‘standard assessment tests’ which children have to endure at ages seven, eleven and 14. However, because of a technicality regarding voting thresholds, the leadership refused to sanction a boycott, lacking confidence that parents would support teacher action against SATs. The survey reveals, however, that there is very little support for exams and tests as a means of improving primary education. In fact, in 2002 only 1% wanted "more emphasis on exams and tests". Unsurprisingly, smaller class sizes and quality teachers were seen as key to improving education: 40% thought that there were "too many" tests and exams in primary schools.

New Labour have also promoted more selection in secondary schools and are introducing specialist schools which can select some of their pupils. However, the report points out that this "appears to be going against the grain" with support for non-selection increasing from 40% in 1984 to 49% in 2002. Moreover, "this growth is evident even among those middle-class groups who are most likely to benefit from a selective education".

Blair’s drive to introduce top-up tuition fees provoked such a major rebellion amongst New Labour MPs that it even threatened his premiership. The report presents very interesting figures concerning higher education, although the most up-to-date are from 2002, before the top-up fees debate began. Interestingly, support for extra government spending on students at university increased by 5% from 1983 to 2002, while over the same period support for extra spending on other sectors of education remained more or less the same.

The report also nails the myth that fees are mainly an issue for middle-class parents or students: 75% of parents in 2002 thought it "very" or "fairly likely" that one of their children would go to university. Only 4% thought it was "not at all likely". However, 43% thought that a young person from a well-off background would be more likely to get a place.

In 1997 New Labour abolished the student grant. They are now proposing a grant of £3,000 for the poorest students, but this falls well below the level needed to maintain a student at university. Figures in the report reveal that "there has been very little change in the public’s preference for some form of grant-based system" (57% in 1983, 59% in 2000). Nevertheless, in 2001 only 27% thought that all students should get grants (down from 30% in 1995) while 67% supported some students getting a grant. On fees, 58% thought that some students/families should pay towards tuition costs while studying (47% thought they should pay after studying) while 33% thought that none should pay during study and 35% that none should pay after finishing their studies.

It would seem that, despite support for increased government spending, New Labour’s ideology and policy over the past five years have had some effect in eroding the idea of free higher education for all. However, the report points out that "there was a small increase [3-4%] in those who opposed tuition fees completely between 2000 and 2001".

…and equality

TODAY IN BRITAIN the poorest tenth of the population receive 3% of national income while the richest tenth receive more than a quarter. Apart from a short decline during the recession of the early 1990s (when the abolition of the regressive poll tax also had an effect), inequality has continued on an upward curve since 1979. The report states that: "The election of a Labour government in 1997 did nothing to curb the growth of income inequality and it now stands at a higher level than at any time in the past".

This in turn has had an impact on people’s outlook. Over the years people were asked whether they thought the gap between rich and poor was too large, about right, or too small. In 1983, 72% thought it was too large. This had increased to 82% by 2002. In the same year over 60% agreed with the statement "ordinary working people do not get their fair share". When asked in 1999 whether inequality exists because it benefits the rich and powerful, nearly two-thirds (58%) of people agreed.

But what should be done to close this income gulf? As the main political representatives of big business in Britain, New Labour have cut corporation tax to a record low and resisted any demands for increasing the taxes of the rich. They have argued that poverty should be tackled by increasing opportunities for those at the bottom, with the emphasis on ‘making work pay’. How does this correspond with people’s attitudes?

The results are contradictory. In 1987, around 75% of those surveyed thought that people on high incomes should pay a larger or much larger share of their income in taxes compared with people on low incomes. In 1999 this figure had hardly changed. And between 1985 and 2002, a majority agreed that it is the responsibility of governments to reduce inequality.

However, when asked whether the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off, the proportion who agreed fell below 40% for the first time in 1998 and has stayed below ever since. It is interesting that between 1987 and 2002 attitudes amongst Tory supporters towards redistribution remained unchanged, while they fell by 20% amongst Labour supporters.

The report raises the possibility (citing findings from the 16th report by Hills and Lecks) that it is the word ‘redistribution’ that people object to rather than the practice. However, the fall in support for redistribution after 1997 would suggest that New Labour have had some success in influencing attitudes. The social basis for this was laid under the Tories, with the Thatcherite neo-liberal offensive aimed at undermining the post-war gains of the working class in the face of declining profitability for the capitalist class. An assault on the strength of the trade unions, privatisation and cutbacks in social provision were accompanied by an ideological offensive in support of the free market, competition and individualism, against collectivism and universal state provision of services and benefits. By the time New Labour were elected in 1997 the party had been transformed into an open capitalist party embracing the market and the neo-liberal policies and ideology of Thatcherism. And it was under New Labour that the biggest change in social attitudes occurred on redistribution. "Britain now looks like more of the Thatcherite country that it did at any time when Thatcher herself was prime minister", the report concludes.

Welfare spending

THIS WOULD ALSO appear to be the case with regard to spending on welfare benefits. Since New Labour came to power in 1997, the dominant ideology has been one of relieving poverty through work and tax credits. Those that can work should, is the New Labour mantra, with the government giving a ‘hand up’ rather than ‘handouts’, and punishing those who ‘refuse to help themselves’. The report says that "strong and sustained support for higher spending on ‘health, education and social benefits’ contrasts with a decline in support for more spending on welfare benefits for the poor". However, within that "there is widespread support for higher spending on benefits for certain ‘deserving’ groups such as parents who work on low incomes, disabled people, and pensioners".

Support for spending on unemployment benefits declined amongst all age groups from 1987 to 2002. Interestingly, people massively overestimated the amount spent on benefits for the unemployed. When surveyed in 2001, 44% thought that unemployment benefits made up the largest share of the social security budget, when they actually comprised 6% of the total. Attitudes towards the unemployed were harder amongst young people. Also, between 1987 and 2002 support for increasing spending on benefits for the unemployed plummeted 23% amongst New Labour supporters.

The report explains that "attitudes towards benefit claimants tend to harden during periods of economic growth and soften during a recession". So, with unemployment still at a relatively low level (albeit with pockets of high unemployment in some areas), this could help to explain why support for unemployment benefit has fallen . However, the report adds that "the consistency of this trend across a range of different indicators supports the idea that there has been a marked change in public attitudes towards the benefit system, over and above the effect of the economic cycle".

On pensions the report concludes: "most people also believe that government has a responsibility to provide an adequate standard of living for retired people, although the majority of people do not expect that they themselves will rely on the state pension as their main source of income when they retire". This was especially the case amongst younger age groups.

With no mainstream political party championing collectivism and the provision of universal welfare benefits, it would appear that the notion of targeting benefits at those who ‘most deserve them’, and individuals contributing towards some services/benefits, is having a certain effect on consciousness.

Nevertheless, despite 25 years of neo-liberal attacks a significant basis of support remains for the idea of publicly funded provision of services and welfare, which acts as a certain restraint on the mainstream parties in their attempts to roll back the welfare state in the interests of the capitalist class.

Race and gender

THE REPORT ALSO charts changes in attitudes towards the role of women in society and considers whether attitudes on race have altered over the past decade. The number of women participating in the labour force increased rapidly during the 1980s. In 1984 66% were economically active, increasing to 72% in 2001. In the 1990s the fastest growth was amongst mothers with children under five; in 2001, 57% of these worked compared to 48% in 1990.

Women’s increased economic participation appears to have had a significant effect on social attitudes. When asked whether "a man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family", 28% of people agreed in 1989 but only 17% in 2002. The proportion of men agreeing fell by 12 points over that period to 20%. The proportion of men and women who agreed with the statement "women should stay at home when there is a child under school age" fell from 64% in 1989 to 48% in 2002. But the report points out that "men still hold more traditional views than women".

Despite the fact that women’s increased participation in the workforce has gone some way to breaking down traditional gender stereotypes, the report shows that in practice, in most households, women are still much more likely than men to have responsibility for domestic tasks. Unsurprisingly, 13% more women than men arrive home from work "too tired to do the chores that needed to be done". These domestic responsibilities also influence the type of work women engage in; 45% work part-time compared to 9% of men. Changes in working patterns inevitably impact on people’s relationships and personal lives. The report concludes that "contemporary family life is characterised by considerable strains and pressures". Work-life balance has become a ‘sexy’ issue for New Labour politicians, although they have manifestly failed to put the resources necessary into services like childcare that would ease the pressures on working parents. On policies such as parental leave they have made concessions to the employers, making many of their reforms irrelevant, especially to the lowest paid and most exploited workers.

As the survey points out, the stresses and strains of combining work and family would not be solved by trying to reverse the economic and social processes that have taken place over the last two decades or so; women will not be leaving the workplaces to dedicate themselves full-time to caring for children and doing housework.

The survey recognises that work-life balance is a major policy issue but adds that there are many issues to be resolved. It doesn’t of course consider whether these can ever be resolved when the capitalist class is increasingly seeking to maintain its profits at the expense of workers’ wages and conditions, and by attacking the social wage.

When asked the question, "how would you describe yourself... as very prejudiced against people of other races, a little prejudiced or not prejudiced at all", 39% of people in 1984 considered themselves very or a little prejudiced. This had fallen to 25% in 2000-2001 but there were rises within a gradual decline. In 2002, in particular, the percentage of people admitting to being prejudiced shot up by six points to 31%. This is undoubtedly linked to the anti-asylum seeker propaganda emanating from the right-wing press, reinforced by New Labour’s ‘get tough’ policies.

An opinion poll carried out in January this year would seem to reinforce the idea that there has been a recent increase in racism. The Mori poll for Prospect magazine found that race and immigration is now third on people’s list of concerns, ahead of crime and the economy: 29% of people surveyed thought that it was ‘the most important issue’ for them compared to under 10% in 1984. Nearly half believed that other people are unfairly getting priority over them in public services and welfare payments; of these 39% blamed asylum seekers. As with unemployment benefit, people grossly overestimate the numbers of first generation immigrants in Britain – thinking they comprise 23% of the population rather than the real figure of 6%.

The survey emphasises the risks posed by a media-led campaign against immigration and predicts a ‘bumpy ride’ in the short-term but a continued decline in prejudice and intolerance in the medium term. There are, of course, many other factors that could influence how attitudes will evolve in the future, not least whether there is an increase in collective struggle by workers in the workplaces and on the political plane, which could cut across divisive racist ideas fomented by the media and government, and underpinned by inadequate services, benefits and jobs.

Politics and protest

THE FIFTH chapter of the report is entitled ‘Is there a crisis of political participation?’ The authors refer to the turnout at the 2001 general election which was the lowest since 1918. However, as they point out, "voting is not the only form of political participation"; people can sign a petition, contact the media or go on a demonstration. Signing a petition can seem a low level of political participation, but for those who do so it is often a big step. In 1983, 55% said that they had signed a petition, increasing to 63% in 2002.

The data confirms that the one-and-a-half million strong February 2003 demonstration against war in Iraq, the biggest demonstration in British history, was not an aberration but part of an increasing trend towards greater political action. While only 6% said they had been on a protest or demonstration in 1986, this doubled to 12% in 2002. The survey states 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".

The survey shows how the attitudes of Conservative and New Labour supporters are converging on issues such as taxation, public spending and redistribution. But it does not really address how all the mainstream parties pursuing a neo-liberal agenda relates to the changes in attitudes that have taken place over the past 20 years.

The survey doesn’t examine the key question, ‘is there a crisis of political representation?’ If it had, undoubtedly the answer would be yes. Large sections of the working-class and increasingly sections of the radical middle-class have become politically disenfranchised since the Labour Party transformed itself from a capitalist workers’ party into an openly capitalist party. No authoritative mass party exists that could offer a collectivist, let alone an anti-capitalist or socialist alternative to the pro-market, individualist ideology of all the main political parties. This has been a crucial factor in influencing how social attitudes have evolved, particularly over the last decade. The building of such a party, rooted in the organisations of the working class, will be key to shaping how they evolve in the future.


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