Saturday, May 26, 2007
How popular are New Labour 'values'? posted by leninIt's one of those words that the government likes to introduce into its policy announcements and PR quite a bit: 'values'. That oleaginous morpheme, and its shady associates (family, community, hard-working, honesty, decency, fairness etc) doesn't seem to have any real referent. Perhaps it is raised to reassure us that New Labour actually understands something beyond opportunism and plutophilia. Well, since Brown will now be using those vocables as often as possible, and as the latest British Social Attitudes Survey has come out recently, I thought I'd have a look at its findings and see if any of the 'values' espoused by New Labour hold much weight with the public. This survey, or surveys like it, have been produced for decades. Its reports don't focus on the same topics each year, and there is a great deal of interpretative commentary, yet there are some studies that have been going on for decades, and which therefore provide a picture of generational change and continuity.
Class and political identity
The first such findings relate to class identification. Tony Blair famously declared in 1998 that "we're all middle class now" and has consistently maintained that the class war is over - those are the "old divisions" that he and Brown want us to get over (by, for instance, restructuring education and the labour market with the claim that it will better equip the working class to deal with a neoliberal age - something they call 'equality of opportunity'). The public as a whole has thus far not internalised the conception of itself as an amorphous, largely middle class, consumer bloc. In 1983, when people were asked at the height of Bennism what class they belonged to, 61% said working class; in 1992, 60%; in 2005, 57% with 37% identifying themselves as middle class. (It was not asked on this occasion, but previous surveys have shown that three quarters of the British public believe there to be a "class war" in the UK). The researchers note that the unprompted identification with the working class has tended to be higher when "issues of social class came to the fore" such as in 1983, but on the whole "there is clearly no underlying downward trend of the sort we had expected". There has been a gradual decline in the number of people identifying themselves as working class, due to "the change over the last forty years in the shape of the 'objective' class structure, as defined by the proportion in manual and non-manual jobs", but still close to three fifths of people consider themselves working class. (One thing that has declined much more rapidly has been party identification. In 1987, 46% of people had very or fairly strong party identifications, which by 2005 had fallen to 35% - the number of people who "despite our persistent questioning" could come not name an identification at all had doubled from 7% to 13%. Of those who do identify with a party, the smaller parties are much more likely to feel a 'sense of community' with other members than either Labour or the Tories.
How does this translate into broader political attitudes? Well, predictably, the stronger the working class identity, the stronger the expression of views that there is class conflict: in 2005, of people who identified as working class and 'shared a sense of community' with them, 65% agreed that working people do not get their fair share; of those who stated a working class identity but didn't feel it to be based on 'close' affiliation, 58% agreed. Only 45% of those who identified as middle class agreed, whether they felt 'close' to others of the same class or not. Similarly, 58% of those with strong working class identification agreed that "business benefits owners at the expense of workers", and 50% of the same group that there is "bound to be conflict" between the classes (on this latter statement, 57% of those who strongly identified as middle class agreed). This in an era where there isn't much evidence of such conflict. When it came to trade union representation, although membership has continued to decline in most sectors barring the public sector (where representation remains solid at 58%, compared to only 17% in the private sector), one shift has been in the perception among union members of the efficacy of their union. Among unionised workers, the number believing their union actually makes the workplace either a lot or a little better has risen by 6%, precisely the figure by which those who think it makes no difference declined (only 5% think unions make the workplace worse). Among non-unionised workers, 66% thinks it makes no difference, while 7% thinks it makes the workplace worse. At the same time, this doesn't reflect perceived efficacy in winning good pay, at which only 3% of employees thought their union excelled. Despite the strong impression among non-unionised workers that belonging to one makes little difference, 41% say it is likely that they would join a union if there was one in their workplace (although, as you might anticipate, the likelihood of joining a union was much lower among those on the political right).
Pensions and redistribution
Any neoliberal government has won a great prize if it can privatise pensions, since pensions make up the greatest single chunk of social security expenditure. New Labour is too cautious to try doing that right away, but it is seeking to expand private provision, reduce state provision, introduce means-testing and extend working lives. Again, there appears to be a correlation between views expressed and social class (here defined by the authors in terms of employment status). Managers and professionals tend to be less supportive of universal state funding for pensions (36% in England and Wales, 50% in Scotland) than routine and semi-routine workers (47% in England and Wales and 60% in Scotland). As a whole, 59% of Britons support a universal state pension, but 61% of those polled think those on low incomes should get more money. New Labour's use of means-testing could be construed as an attempt to tap into those preferences, yet the result is that - as Age Concern has pointed out - the policy supposedly designed to achieve those desiderata, has actually increased poverty and reduced the access of the poor by introducing burdensome complexity to the claims process. Last year's survey asked specifically about support for means-testing, and 56% opposed it - although, again, there was implicit support for a different and very limited form of means-testing, that pertaining solely to a top-up on an already reasonable state pension. On a related matter, and one that is bound to come up, the 2005/6 survey also tested support for the flat tax proposed by some Tories versus progressive taxation - predictably, 56% of those on incomes above £50k supported it, while only 35% of those on incomes below £15k did; yet 37% of those on £50k or more support progressive taxation even where it means higher taxes for them. Similarly, approximately half of the public believes that "inequality continues to exist because it benefits the rich and powerful", with huge majorities in this group agreeing that the government should redistribute wealth, spend more money on benefits and increase taxes overall. A plurality of the overall population supports increased redistribution - 38% say the government redistributes too little, 28% say about right, and 13% too much. A fifth of the population has no view either way. On healthcare, the overwhelming majority, close to 80%, opposed any infringement on the universality of the health service.
Most people, 53% disagree with forcing people to save for their own retirement, and 67% disagree that it is people's "own responsibility" to save for any care they might need. 66% of routine and semi-routine workers think the government should be mainly responsible for income in retirement, while only 47% of managers and professionals think so. This is surely in part because managers and professionals are much more likely to have well-funded company pensions. Yet support for such policies is to a remarkable extent hegemonic, enjoying substantial cross-class support. Those who identify is being more to the left are 18% more likely to support universal state pension provision than those who are more to the right, yet that still means that 45% of right-wingers support such policies.
Worth mentioning that in Scotland, support for state funding of all pensions-related issues - whether care or decent income - is higher across the board. This suggests that opinion is partly shaped by what is politically realistic, since the Scottish Executive made a point of introducing free personal care for the elderly. I mentioned before that support for redistribution of wealth seems to follow New Labour's advocacy of such policies - to a limited extent, given the absence of a major political competitor for the left-vote, New Labour can set the boundaries of the possible, even among those who think the present distribution of wealth is deeply unfair.
Civil Liberties and Terror
New Labour's attitude to civil liberties was summed up in Blair's statement that traditional rights protect the accused at the expense of the ordinary citizen. He has insisted, whether rolling back habeus corpus, granting police new powers, or promulgating his hideous ASBOs, that the correct 'balance' be restored between victim and accused (not proven criminal, mark you - accused). Blair Despite the fervid atmosphere of the 'war on terror', most people don't seem to agree with him. In 1996, 56% of people thought it was worse to convict an innocent person than to let a guilty man go free, while 27% thought it was better to convict someone and risk him being innocent than let a crook go. In 2005, 52% of people thought it was worse to convict an innocent man, while 23% thought is was worse to let a guilty man go. The only rise in this period was among those who couldn't choose either way. Despite a fall from 73% in 1996, most people - 58% - still think the police should not be allowed to question someone for a week without the suspect seeing a solicitor. Similarly, although 45% of people support abolishing the right of trial by jury for those suspected of terrorism, 50% do not. And although New Labour increasingly criminalised protest (no-protest zones, anti-terror laws used to nick peaceful protesters), most people (63%) thought it was unacceptable to ban peaceful protests or demonstrations under any circumstances. In 1985, 1990 and 1996, this position was much more strongly held by Liberals and Labour supporters than Tories. In 2005, Tories are 14% more likely than Labour supporters to back such a position 'strongly'. Today, only 45% of Labour supporters back the rights of protesters 'strongly', while 59% of Tory voters do, as do 59% of Lib Dems. On torture, which the government professes to oppose anyway, there is a rather sickly fifth of the public who would accept the torturing of terror suspects in British prisons, but 76% find it unacceptable.
On some civil liberty issues, there has been a drift toward authoritarianism, some of which predates 9/11. While support for the death penalty fell from 75% in 1986 to under 60% in 2005 (still too high), the number of those 'strongly' supporting the rights of protesters still fell overall from 59% in 1985 to 51% in 2005. Those who 'definitely' think that those who seek to overthrow the government by violence should be allowed to hold meetings and publish books has fallen from 27% to 16%. Even though 84% agree that a country must always abide by human rights law when it is at war, 39% think that terror suspects should not be protected by human rights law, while 35% think that such law prevents the armed forces from doing their job. In 1990, more people disagreed with ID cards than agreed. In 2005, in this survey, 71% think it is a "price worth paying". Okay, the question presupposes a relationship between combatting terrorism and possessing an ID card that has yet to be demonstrated, but there has nevertheless been a shift. Predictably, a greater proportion of those opposed to ID cards thinks that the 'terrorist threat' is 'exaggerated' than those who don't, and that correlation holds on a range of issues from trial by jury to detention without charge. For about a fifth of people, the difference between supporting the government's position and opposing it is made by acceptance of the government's narrative of the 'war on terror' and its various dimensions. Even so, on most of its flagship policies and its expressed 'values' in relation to civil liberties, the government does not carry broad public support.
New Labour and Hegemony
The thing I wanted to emphasise here is not only that on a whole range of issues is New Labour in the minority - that can be the case when the consensus is fragmented. At any rate, polls taken on specific policy issues (war, PFI, benefit cuts) consistently find New Labour in a crushing minority. And it is not only that New Labour is consistently eroding the coalition of support it gained in 1997 mainly by attacking its working class base and Muslim voters. It is true that Labour's share of the vote in 2005 was reduced to 36% from 43% in 1997 (in the 2007 local elections, Labour got a mere 27% of the vote), and its overall plurality was less than 2%. Its support among AB voters was relatively well-maintained, down just 2% from its 1997 level, while among C2 voters, DE voters and council tenants, it fell by 9%, 13% and 9% respectively. Yet, again, that wouldn't necessarily redound to the left's advantage on its own. Public hostility to New Labour and its key policies can't realistically be in doubt. The question is, can an alternative coalition be forced? On the basis of the underlying 'values' reflected in successive studies and polls, there is a substantial basis of support for a rather old-fashioned left-wing programme of nationalisation, redistribution and trade unionism, alongside the urgent contemporary fight against the 'war on terror', and in defense of civil liberties. There is room for a sizeable left-wing coalition in British politics that isn't being given much expression electorally, yet potentially it embraces a much wider layer of people than the current supporters of New Labour.
It is easy to overstate this: I remember in the 2001 election, the Greens put out a press release claiming that if voting patterns reflected the patterns of policy support, they would be the party of government, and the main opposition parties would be the Socialist Alliance and the Liberal Democrats. Would that it were so. Even so: about forty per cent of people support increased redistribution of wealth, considerably more than would oppose it; a similar number supports nationalisation; there are overwhelming majorities in favour of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and against the nuclear redux; majorities continue to support higher public spending on benefits and the health service. It is also true that on some issues, there are large layers of people undecided - but then consensus-building is always a strenuous effort, and opinion surveys provide a glimpse of raw material, not a permanent political map. There are some low grumbles of dissent from within the remaining rump of Labour Party members - disproportionately a middle class, salariat bunch - but compared to leftist revolts that have befallen past failed right-wing Labour leaderships, this is limp stuff. Labour ain't the vehicle for those policies any more, and its current coalition can't hold. Liam Byrne, the cynically manipulative Blairite MP, recently told Fabians that Labour could win the next election by retaining the coalition of 1997. It is delusional stuff: aside from banking on the bolted working class horse returning to a prodigiously soiled stable, every indication is that when the Tories present a saleable centre-right candidate, New Labour's marginal voters and fair-weather AB supporters will go Conservative. Having watched their heartlands crumble, New Labour is set to watch its middle class and rich friends wander back to the fold.