A Nation with Attitude
Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive, National Centre for Social Research
In this third article in a series about society, I reflect on public attitudes and some of the messages for our politicians and policy makers.
As the nation’s MPs come back to Westminster in January, many may well be feeling in low spirits. In 2014, over 1.5 million Scots voted for Scottish independence; in the general election, more people voted UKIP than voted Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist combined (giving them just one MP) and then in 2016, we voted to leave the European Union against the advice of the main parliamentary parties and most “expert” opinion.
The reaction of the “establishment” to the EU Referendum result got me stretching for a copy of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve over Christmas. It was developed in the 1960s to help people understand their reactions to significant change or upheaval.
The stages in my version are “shock”, followed by “denial” (surely the public were misled and didn’t mean this?), “anger” (this was the elderly or white working class, we need an independent Scotland or London, we can’t let this happen), “bargaining” (how do we change this or compromise), “depression” (this is really going to happen), “acceptance” and “integration”.
While there is still plenty of denial and anger going into 2017, there are also signs of acceptance: “we understand why you voted the way you did” or in the references to those “just about managing”, inequalities and “an economy that works for all”. A gap had developed and grown between the views of those in power (on issues such as Europe and international migration) and those of a significant proportion of the public, which leads us to the question of how that might be avoided in future.
The best source of information on what the public thinks is NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) (there is a Scottish equivalent) - a representative sample of the population, collected over a decent length field period, with 33 years of continuity and a representative web panel for follow ups. The BSA is an invaluable tool for looking at how far government policy tracks public opinion on a range of issues.
Reflecting on 2016
It is worth spending a moment reflecting on what the public were actually saying about the issues that were taxing politicians in 2016.
The defining issue for politicians last year was, of course, Europe and the EU Referendum. In 2015, BSA data demonstrated the extent of Euroscepticism in Britain. It showed a core who wanted to leave the EU but a significant group in favour of reducing its powers. The Referendum result suggests David Cameron’s efforts to do the latter pre-EU Referendum didn’t convince voters. As well as the political choice, there was a general feeling that EU membership was undermining the country’s cultural life.
- 65% of the public could be described as sceptical about the EU “as is”;
- 22% firmly wanted to leave, while another 43% were in favour of reducing EU powers;
- 47% agreed that the EU undermined Britain’s cultural identity, compared with 30% who disagreed.
Data from the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey showed the strength of public concern about the level of immigration; 77% of people wanted immigration reduced (56% wanted a large reduction). Then, in 2016, our panel demonstrated the extent of support for restrictions on migration from the EU as part of the Brexit deal.
- 7 in 10 said they wanted to limit EU migration after Brexit, including 85% who voted Leave and the majority (55%) of those who voted Remain;
- 7 in 10 people wanted to reintroduce custom checks on people and goods coming into the UK from the EU;
- Over 60% wanted to end free healthcare for EU visitors.
We also found that people felt the benefits of non-EU students coming to the UK slightly outweighed the costs. However, they believed the costs of labour and spousal reunion of migrants greatly outweighed the benefits.
Trust in Institutions
The EU Referendum reflected and possibly amplified a general dissatisfaction with our political system and the establishment. Our data showed that many people had lost faith in politicians and Britain’s institutions. Trust in government and other institutions (like the BBC and the police) continued to fall, but it was the banks that saw the sharpest reduction, from near total approval to considerable cynicism about how they were run.
- In 2012, 59% of the public felt that “people like me have no say in what the Government does”;
- 18% trusted Government to put the nation’s needs above those of a political party, down from 38% in 1986;
- In 2014, 33% thought banks are well run, compared with 91% in 1983.
The electoral system
It is not only on the EU where a significant proportion of the British public feels a change to the established order may be needed.In our 2015 survey, we found that nearly half of people were now in favour of changing the electoral system. A majority in England supported English votes for English Laws but, interestingly, not regional assemblies.
Our politicians are also still coming to terms with the size of the vote for Scottish independence in 2014 and what this means for EU negotiations and the long-term future of the union. Our data showed support for independence at its highest level since devolution.
- In 2015, 45% were in favour of changing the electoral system (to one fairer to smaller parties), compared with 27% in 2011;
- At 39%, support for Scottish independence was at its highest level since 1999 (in the 2014 Referendum, 45% of those who voted, voted “yes”);
- While in 2013, 63% in England supported English votes for English laws;
- 23% believed that each region of England should have its own assembly.
Given the combination of Euroscepticism, a desire to reduce historically high immigration levels (something that successive Governments have not achieved, despite aspirations) and a lack of trust in mainstream politicians, it perhaps should not have come as such a great surprise that we voted to leave the EU.
Although Brexit negotiations will no doubt continue to dominate the coming year, it is worth reflecting on our views on some of the other key policy areas that will attract attention this year.
BSA reminds us that the public’s top priority for public spending is (and always has been) health. In 2015, we saw satisfaction with the NHS at relatively high levels, but recognition that the health service was facing a funding crisis.
- 23% were dissatisfied with the NHS. The percentage has fallen from 50% in 1997 and levelled off between 2010 and 2015;
- Almost everyone (93%) thought the NHS has a funding problem and 32% said this problem is severe.
Although people in Britain were pretty happy with the NHS, the challenge for politicians remains where the money comes from to address spending concerns. There is no consensus among the public: 42% said they were willing to pay more through taxes while 26% said the NHS should live within its means.
Some of our longest running questions on BSA are about public spending and the benefits system, in particular. Our latest figures showed that 45% thought that taxes and spending should be increased, the highest percentage for nearly a decade. The picture is a bit more complicated when we examine where the public would like this investment made. There was little support for reducing general welfare spending. The public would welcome higher spending on benefits for the disabled and single parents, but it is a different story with respect to the unemployed and people on low incomes with no children.
- In 2015, 45% wanted to see lower benefits for unemployed people (the equivalent for retired people is 7%);
- 60% thought the duration of unemployment benefit should be limited;
- 61% thought a working age couple without children who were struggling to make ends meet should look after themselves.
BSA gives us an insight into how people actually view their jobs. By and large, we are happier with our jobs than we were 25 years ago but more of us lack job security and workplace stress is on the rise. There also seems to have been a shift in the role of work in society; more and more of us would work because we want to.
- In 2015, 71% of workers told us they had a “good job”, compared with 62% in 2005 and 57% in 1989;
- While 92% of people thought that job security was either important, or very important, only around two thirds of workers agreed they have this;
- 37% of workers said they experienced stress “always or often”, compared with 28% in 1989;
- 62% said they would enjoy having a job, even if they didn’t need the money - up from 49% in 2005.
Staying ahead of the curve
I’ve sped through a lot of statistics about what the public think on key issues but it’s still only a small amount of what is contained in our attitudes data.
What the statistics show are not necessarily welcome reading for politicians - or at least not those from the major parties. Public attitudes data can help avoid the tortuous journey down and up the Kubler-Ross Change Curve that the EU Referendum vote initiated.
The data beg several questions - how far do our politicians adapt their opinions and policies to better reflect the public mood, such as on international migration? What does it mean for other areas where the public want a change from the status quo, for example, will politicians increase taxes and public spending or intervene in the labour market to improve job security?
The British Social Attitudes Survey is an independent survey established to represent people’s views to policy makers and is conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, a not-for-profit organisation.
Organisations can fund questions on the 2017 survey, or on the associated web panel, by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org (within the next month or so please for 2017).
The BSA results for the year 2016 are due out this summer. You can find more detail on all the figures in this article, as well as earlier data, time series and a range of attitudes on subjects such as housing, religion, identity and Britishness at www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk.