Liz Truss says she’s ready to be unpopular. You should be better. The British public is moving further to the left on how the economy should be run, while the Prime Minister is trying to pull it to the right.
Appetite for government intervention in the economy is rising, as are concerns about inequality and enthusiasm for redistributing income from the better off to the poor, according to the latest UK survey of social attitudes from the National Center for Social Research (NatCen).
A majority of the UK public (52%) polled in Autumn 2021 said the government should raise taxes and spend more on health, education and social services. The poll’s release comes as Truss and her administration announce a plan to cut taxes, including reversing the increase in Social Security (which will benefit most high earners) and cutting benefits (punishing low-income part-time workers).
The shift is recent: the proportion of Brits who want the government to “raise taxes and spend more” has overtaken those who want it to “keep taxes and spending at the same level as now” since 2016. A majority of Brits have opted for the former since 2017.
The proportion of those who want to cut taxes and cut public spending have remained stubbornly low since records began, while the other two positions tend to fluctuate relative to the government at the time. While the Conservative government of the 1990s worked to curb spending, the public wanted to increase it; During the Labor government in the 2000s, public opinion turned the other way.
[See also: The Truss government is planning to make the rich richer]
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The public majority in the latest poll on hikes in taxes and spending could show a marked shift in priorities amid the cost-of-living crisis, despite the massive levels of government spending during the pandemic. Even 46 percent of Conservative supporters said the government should increase taxes and spending, as did 61 percent of Labor supporters.
The proportion of Brits who said the government should redistribute income from those who are better off to those who are less well off was almost half (49%), the highest since 1994. That sentiment is down 10 percentage points since before the 2019 pandemic risen quickly. Only about a quarter of respondents (27 percent) disagreed.
However, the prime minister explicitly rejects the redistribution of wealth. In an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on September 4, she said she thought it was wrong to “look at everything through the lens of redistribution”.
The general recognition of inequality is also increasing. Two-thirds (67%) of the British public agreed that ordinary workers are not getting their fair share of the nation’s wealth, also up 10 percentage points from 2019. The last time sentiment reached such high levels was in 1991 .
66 percent of respondents also agreed that there was “one law for the rich and one for the poor,” a sentiment that grew during the pandemic. In particular, the number of Brits who strongly agreed with the statement increased by 10 percentage points between autumn 2019 and autumn 2020. There were reports of “nepotism” in the awarding of government Covid-19 contracts at the time and it was a few months after Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Barnard Castle.
Those who said they totally agreed rose a further four percentage points in the year to autumn 2021, just weeks before the first reports of the ‘Partygate’ scandal – in which Boris Johnson and others at Downing Street were accused of violating the lockdown rules revealed – surfaced .
There is a theory among some politicians that large-scale government intervention and spending during the pandemic has increased the taste for it among the general public. Its impact and the ensuing cost of living crisis also expose the inequality in British society.
Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, are trying to signal a move in the opposite direction (though in reality their huge bailout of energy bills is a continuation of the interventionist pandemic era). But their signals, such as removing the cap on banker bonuses and bailing out wealthy corporations from proposed tax hikes, may deter a public increasingly reluctant to accept trickle-down economics.
[See also: Why Britain is vulnerable to high interest rates]