In it together or just for ourselves?
This year’s report arrives, like the first survey of 1983, in the wake of riots and recession – with public spending cuts and rising unemployment again causing concern. Interestingly, it finds the British people looking increasingly to themselves, not government, for solutions.
A belief that government doesn’t have all the answers
Despite widespread concern about economic disparity, the public do not appear to believe that government redistribution is the way forward. Furthermore, there is an increasing belief in the importance of individual responsibility.
- While 75 per cent agree that the income gap between rich and poor is too large, only just over a third (35%) believe government should redistribute more to solve the problem.
- There is continued concern that unemployment benefits are too high and that they discourage the unemployed from finding jobs – over half (54 per cent) agree with this sentiment, up from 35 per cent in 1983.
- Although people see child poverty as an issue that government must tackle, 63 per cent believe that parents who “don’t want to work” are a reason why some children live in poverty.
Common interest or self interest?
While an emphasis on individual responsibility chimes with Big Society rhetoric, there is not yet much evidence of common interest. Resistance to new housing (particularly where it is most needed) is strong, opposition to private services is in decline and people are increasingly reluctant to make personal financial sacrifices to protect the environment.
- Despite widespread acknowledgement of housing shortages, 45 per cent oppose new development in their area. Opposition is highest where shortages are most acute, specifically the South East (50 per cent) and outer London (58 per cent).
- After hitting a peak of 63 per cent just nine years ago, support for tax increases to spend more on public services such as health care and education has dropped to 31 per cent in the latest survey.
- The British public is increasingly at ease with the idea of higher earners buying private health care. While 38 per cent thought this “wrong” in 1999, the figure has dropped to 24 per cent in the latest survey. There is a similar trend for education.
- Since 2000 the number of people prepared to pay much higher prices to safeguard the environment has fallen, from 43 to 26 per cent. So too has the proportion willing to pay much higher taxes to protect the environment, from 31 to 22 per cent.
Democracy under pressure
Politicians looking to use their influence to strengthen society may find their efforts frustrated by an increasingly uninterested electorate. Despite perceptions of a “change election” and innovations aimed at increased voter engagement, turnout in 2010 was only 65 per cent.
- Televised debates and online engagement by all parties failed to reach beyond those already interested in politics. Only 26 per cent of those with little interest in politics watched, compared with 74 per cent of the politically interested.
- Only 47 per cent of 18-34 year olds say they voted in 2010, little different to the proportion who voted in 2005 or 2001 (and far lower than their 73 per cent turnout in 1997).
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