The coronavirus pandemic has seen the government intervene in the country’s social and economic life to a degree unprecedented in peacetime. At the height of the pandemic people were required to stay at home as much as possible, and the country’s social life was put on hold. Even now, most cultural activity remains frozen and many a home still doubles as a Zoom-enabled office. As a result, the government has intervened in the labour market by temporarily paying the wages of nearly ten million employees and has spent heavily on supporting businesses that have had to suspend trading, while at the same time showering the health service and many other public services with additional resources.
But what impact is this unusual experience having on public attitudes? In particular, what difference, if any, might it make to voters’ expectations of what government should do – not just now but also when the pandemic is over? Might public policy need to adapt to a new set of public expectations – or will it finding itself facing a public that is looking for the role of government to be scaled back to where it once was?
In recent years, social scientists have presented politicians with a rather sober message so far as attitudes towards taxation and spending are concerned. Voters, it seems, are impossible to satisfy. If public spending goes up, support for lower taxation increases. If taxes are cut, people demand more spending on what they hope will be better public services. The electorate act like a ‘thermostat’ that regulates what it regards as undue hikes or unnecessary cuts in either taxation or spending – but never remain satisfied with the status quo for long.
This pattern has been evident in the data collected annually since 1983 by NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. The attempts by Margaret Thatcher to rein back the size of the state in the 1980s saw the public increasingly look for more taxation and spending. When Tony Blair’s Labour government eventually responded to that mood by increasing public spending, support for more tax and spend began to fall. The 2008-9 financial crash – the last time that government had to intervene dramatically in order to rescue a severely ailing economy – did not give rise to a rethink. Only more recently has support for tax and spend gone back up again, as voters have gradually responded to a decade of austerity.
Against this backdrop, it seems obvious what the public will want once the pandemic is over – they will be looking to government to be cut back to its former size. They may perhaps accept that some increases in taxation may be necessary to help pay off the coronavirus bill, but they will not be looking for Britain to become much more of a high tax, high spending society.
Yet, attitudes towards public spending are not always thermostatic. One area where that has not been the case is in respect of attitudes towards welfare benefits for those of working age. The provision of such benefits has been scaled back by both Conservative and Labour administrations, yet at the same time voters have appeared even less supportive of such payments. It has appeared as public attitudes were being reshaped by the apparent political consensus in favour of cutbacks.
However, more recently there have already been signs that this trend may have begun to reverse – as a result, perhaps, of a breakdown in the political consensus on the subject following the advent of a more left-wing Labour leadership in 2015. In any event, it now looks highly likely that the pandemic – unlike the financial crash of 2008-9 – is going to see unemployment rise to a level not seen since the 1980s and early 1990s. For many voters of working age today this may prove a novel and unsettling experience that might cause them to look for a stronger welfare safety net than the one the government currently provides. The workforce of the 1980s that lived under the shadow of high unemployment held more liberal views on support for the unemployed than have been in evidence more recently.
So, perhaps the new circumstances created by the pandemic will give rise to a reset of the thermostat of public attitudes – and voters will look for more interventionist and active government than hitherto. Not that their views will be formed in a vacuum – the messages they hear from politicians will matter too. Even before the pandemic the current Conservative administration has appeared less enamoured of the arguments for fiscal rectitude than any such government has been since 1979, and has so far appeared reluctant to give up on its ambitions because of the public health crisis. Maybe voters will take their cue from that approach.
To date, there has been a tendency for commentators who have attempted to envisage the opportunities and challenges of the post-pandemic world to suggest that it will help bring about an era that reflects their own pre-existing ideological preferences. Those on the left argue that Britain will need to embrace an era of bigger government; those on the right claim the long-term health of all of us will rest on restoring a vibrant private sector economy. Yet neither path is inevitable – and how voters react – or not – is an empirical, not an ideological, question.
To help secure an early indication of the answer NatCen are – thanks to financial support from UKRI/ESRC as part of its COVID19 initiative – currently re-contacting a representative sample of those who participated in the 2018 or 2019 BSA surveys and asking them once again many of the questions that have been carried on that survey in recent years. That way we will understand whether, how and perhaps why voters, both individually and collectively have changed their minds about taxes, benefits and the role of government. We will then return to them again next year, when perhaps the worst will be over, and the longer-term impact of the crisis begin to come into view. Given the scale and the seriousness of the public health crisis, it is even more important than ever that public policy is based on current evidence about public attitudes rather than past preconceptions. It is to be hoped that politicians – of all persuasions – will embrace that sentiment too.
Photo Credit: Elliott Stallion on Unsplash
About the author
Professor Sir John Curtice is Professor of Politics at University of Strathclyde and Senior Research Fellow at NatCen Social Research. Sir John is a regular media commentator on both British and Scottish politics. He is also President of the British Polling Council.