Spending and welfare / Who has changed their mind?

Who has changed their mind?

Although we have not witnessed overall long-term changes in concern about the income gap or in public support for redistribution, the stability in views at a societal level may conceal patterns of change within different sections of society. We therefore begin this section by considering whether different groups within society adopt different stances to these issues than they did three decades ago. Previous analyses of British Social Attitudes data, focusing on trends in the views of different generations and subgroups of the population, have linked the hardening of attitudes to some benefits and benefit claimants with disproportionate changes among two specific groups: Labour supporters and young people (Clery, 2012; Clery et al., 2013; MORI, 2012). In this section we explore differences between these groups and the wider population as well as the influence of socio-economic group on people's views towards spending and welfare (see the Social class chapter for an in-depth discussion of the relationship between class and attitudes).

The income gap and redistribution

undefinedTable 2.5 presents the proportions of different groups, defined by age, occupational class and party affiliation, who agree that the income gap is "too large", and indicates how their views have changed between 1987 and 2012.[1] Clearly, the views of different groups have changed in varied ways over the past three decades, with the opinions of those who are oldest and who support the Conservative Party having changed the most, while there is no clear pattern of association with socio-economic group. Concern about the income gap has increased among those in the oldest age group by 13 percentage points, while among the youngest age group this has declined by five percentage points. Agreement with the view that the income gap is too large has increased by nine percentage points among Conservative Party supporters, while remaining stable for supporters of the two other main parties. As a result, the difference between the views of Conservative and Labour Party supporters has reduced since the 1980s, from 21 percentage points to 12 percentage points in 2012. As the two characteristics associated with the greatest degree of attitude change (being older and being a Conservative Party supporter), are known to be correlated, it is not possible to conclude which is driving the narrowing of views on inequality with the rest of the population. It is also worth noting that, between 2007 and 2012, movement in attitudes for different groups were rather similar - across all age, occupational and party affiliation groups (with the exception of blue-collar workers and Liberal Democrat supporters) there was a rise in those saying that the income gap is too large. This suggests that the key period of divergence in views between different occupational groups, party identifiers and age groups occurred somewhat earlier. 


Even more interesting patterns emerge when we examine changes in views on redistribution. Table 2.6 demonstrates a similar pattern of attitudinal change for different age groups as that noted in relation to income inequality above. While in the 1980s the youngest age group was the most likely to support redistribution, it is within this group that we see the biggest decrease in support for redistribution over time (a fall of nine percentage points, while the two oldest age group's views have remained stable). As a result, in 2012, we see little difference by age in levels of support for government redistribution. 

Those in the lowest occupational group have become less likely to support redistribution, despite traditionally exhibiting higher support than other groups. While other occupational groups' views have remained fairly stable, the proportion among this group agreeing that the government should redistribute income has fallen from 54 per cent in 1987, to 46 per cent in 2012.  

undefinedFinally, support for redistribution has remained stable among those affiliating with the Liberal Democrats, and increased just by four per cent among those supporting the Conservative Party. However support among Labour Party supporters has declined by 17 percentage points in the same period. Marked differences between Conservative Party supporters and supporters of the other two main parties do remain - although these are somewhat less pronounced than they were in 1987. 

As with views on the income gap, the views of different age groups on redistribution have changed in a consistent way since 2007, indicating that divergence in their views occurred earlier than this. However, in the case of redistribution, this is not true for groups defined by occupation or party identification. It is interesting to note a particularly sharp rise (of 15 percentage points, compared with nine or less for each other group) in support for redistribution among those defined as working class over the period of the financial crisis and recession since 2007. It may be that the views of this group have changed most in this period as they were the most likely to be affected by these events. Support for redistribution has also increased most among Labour and Liberal Democrat Party supporters since 2007 (by 15 and 13 percentage points respectively, compared with a rise of seven percentage points among Conservative Party supporters). This is at odds with the long-term trend noted above, and indicates that the convergence of views witnessed over the past three decades may have begun to reverse. 


undefinedWhile there has been little change at the societal level, we can therefore conclude that attitudes to income inequality and redistribution have moved in varied directions and at different rates for various subgroups within the population over the past three decades. The views of those who were once the least likely to identify income inequality as an issue or to endorse redistribution have changed the most, becoming far more 'collectivist' in nature, while the opposite can be seen to be true for those who once adopted the alternative viewpoint. As a result, the public appears more united in its attitudes to these issues than it did three decades ago although, at a societal level, we have seen that it has not appeared to have moved in a more or less collectivist direction. Nevertheless, more recent change suggests that these long-term trends may be starting to reverse - with the public again becoming less united in its views. 


We next examine whether attitudes to welfare have changed in similar ways among different sections of the population over time, focusing on those two measures where we have seen most change over the past three decades - namely the declining view that the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, and the growing perception that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work. 

undefinedSo far we have seen that the views of the youngest age group, lowest occupational group and Labour Party have become less 'collectivist' regarding redistribution. In Table 2.7 we see the changing attitudes of these groups in relation to welfare. Support for increased welfare spending has declined relatively evenly among groups defined by age and occupational class; however, the support of those identifying with the Labour Party has declined more dramatically than of the support of those identifying with the Conservative Party - by 29 percentage points, compared with 18 percentage points for Conservative Party supporters. When we examine the increasingly prevalent view that unemployment benefits are "too high and discourage work" (Table 2.8), we see that support for this standpoint has increased most among the youngest age group and among supporters of the Labour Party (two characteristics which are known to be correlated). The view that unemployment benefits are too high has increased by 31 percentage points among the youngest age group, compared with 17 percentage points among the oldest age group. Among Labour Party supporters this view has increased by 27 percentage points, (compared with a slightly lower 24 percentage points among Conservative supporters, and 22 percentage points among Liberal Democrat supporters). This, together with findings from Table 2.7, reflects findings from other analyses of British Social Attitudes data which show that the development of less collectivist public attitudes towards welfare have been most pronounced among Labour Party supporters, following the policy direction adopted by the party since the mid-1990s - though, as noted previously, we cannot be certain about causality in this instance. Nevertheless, unlike attitudes to income inequality and government redistribution, the view that unemployment benefits are too high has risen in popularity among all subgroups since 1987. 

However, when we focus on very recent change, between 2011 and 2012, we see that these patterns are not replicated. While the overall increase of six percentage points in support for more government spending on welfare benefits since 2011 is broadly reflected across all sections of the population, it is interesting to note that it is particularly marked in the highest occupational groups, and less marked in the lowest. This is intriguing, given that lowest occupational groups would have been more likely to require welfare benefits in a period of economic hardship. In contrast, the decline of 11 percentage points between 2011 and 2012 in the proportion agreeing with the view that benefits for unemployed people "are too high and discourage work" occurred relatively evenly across all sections of society, though was considerably less pronounced among the oldest age group, those aged 65 or more. These findings suggest that the long-term trends in subgroups' attitudes are not necessarily set to continue. 



While the British public as a whole does not appear to have become less collectivist over the past three decades, with the exception of its attitudes towards the unemployed, views have changed in quite varied ways in different sections of society. The upshot of these changes is that, while the British people are not more collectivist than they were three decades ago, they do appear more united in their views - with the attitudes of different age groups, party supporters and social classes appearing to converge on most matters. However, when we focus on more recent periods, alternative trends are evident, suggesting that this convergence occurred in an earlier period. Indeed, in recent years, we can again see views beginning to diverge. 

Clearly though, the public has become less collectivist towards the unemployed and, while this change is particularly pronounced among Labour Party supporters and the youngest age group (18 to 34 year olds), it is nevertheless one displayed by all sections of society. In our final section, we seek to examine this change in the context of the existing literature on attitudes to welfare. 


1. 1987 was chosen as the starting point for our analysis in order to use a comparable measure of social class with all subsequent years.

2. The bases for Table 2.5 are as follows:


3. The bases for Table 2.6 are as follows:


4. The bases for Table 2.7 are as follows:


5. The bases for Table 2.8 are as follows: