Watch: The rise and fall of anti-welfare attitudes: what it means for welfare reform in 2024 and beyond

“The public has so far not reacted against the expansion of the state occasioned by Covid-19, seemingly because of their concern about the state of welfare state, public services and particularly the NHS.”

In our first event of 2024 as part of our Campaign for Social Science’s ongoing project, Election 24: ideas for change based on social science evidence, Professor Sir John Curtice and Professor Ben Baumberg Geiger offered their perspectives on public attitudes towards taxation and welfare.

In the webinar, run in partnership with the National Centre for Social Research and chaired by Professor Imogen Tyler, both Sir John and Ben drew on the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey to explore the evidence on how public perceptions towards taxation and welfare have changed over time, and what this could mean in the run up to a UK general election.

First, Professor Sir John Curtice, University of Strathclyde, presented historical data to showcase how public views towards taxation and spending swings between wanting more or less taxation and spending in relation to the performance of public services. But he noted that public attitudes in the past couple of years hasn’t followed the same typical pattern as previously following the pandemic, with more of the public continuing to want more taxation and spending on public services, compared to those who want to reduce spending on such services. He then focused in on a potential clue as to why this might be, referring to the public’s satisfaction with the NHS.

Sir John said, “If you ask people who are dissatisfied with the health service, as British Social Attitudes has done, the issue that above all they are most likely to mention is that it takes too long to get an appointment. And this also reflects what we know was a source of dissatisfaction with the health service back in the 1990s. So, it may well be a reason why the public have not reacted against the expansion of the state, because the state is not thought to be delivering on the public services side of the equation and, until that is sorted, perhaps more people are not going to be willing to embrace tax cuts.”

He then focused in on attitudes of different party voters, and highlighted how these weren’t vastly different to the general public attitude.

Following Sir John’s presentation, Ben offered further evidence on public attitudes focusing specifically on perceptions towards welfare and related policies. He began by presenting data on public attitudes towards welfare from the 1980s onwards, and highlighted how at the present time, particularly around 2019, the public have lower anti-welfare attitudes than previously in the British Social Attitudes series. He then went on to offer some potential explanations to account for this fall, with the most plausible contributing factors lying in a less hostile political and media rhetoric, although, as Ben pointed out, attitudes are ambivalent and not strongly pro-welfare.

Pointing to the YouGov Tracker Series on the public’s perceptions of the most important issues facing the country, Ben said, “From 2011 or so, you can see health rising, the economy going down and then going up again, but welfare was never a really high priority. Although it was hovering at about 30% around the time of austerity and welfare reform, it has gone down since then. So now only about 10% of people choose welfare as one of their top three priorities as the most important issues facing the country.”

He then went on to discuss the complexity of welfare attitudes and what this means for both the Conservative and Labour parties in an election year. He said, “Most people of all political persuasions think welfare is working badly and attitudes are relatively pro welfare now, particularly in some respects. And there is a way, therefore, in which radical reform could land well, particularly if framed not just in things to with adequacy but in changing how it feels to claim benefits and the consequences that has for both claimant wellbeing and our engagement with the labour market.”

Watch the recording below to hear more from our speakers. The slides used during the presentation by Professor Sir John Curtice are available to view here, and those used by Professor Ben Baumberg Geiger are available to view here.


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The rise and fall of anti-welfare attitudes: what it means for welfare reform in 2024 and beyond is part of Election 24: Ideas for change based on social science evidence, a Campaign for Social Science project which draws on a range of social science research to suggest evidence-based social policy directions ahead of a UK general election in 2024.

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