More Thatcherite Than Ever

Why New Labour Can Cut Benefits

By Peter Taylor-Gooby, University of Kent


The UK governmentís plans to end incapacity benefit for all but the most disabled people and make the unemployed work for their benefits are a major departure from traditional Labour policies.  It is not often recognised how far British public opinion has shifted  towards a liberal individualist stance on social issues in recent years.  In some ways we are more Thatcherite under New Labour than we ever were under the Conservatives.


Evidence from a range of attitude surveys points in the same direction.  Sympathy for the poor, which grew steadily stronger under the Conservative government of the 1980s and early 1990s, has collapsed, as the chart below shows.  By the mid 1990s those saying benefits were too low substantially outnumbered those saying they were too high.  By 2006 the situation was almost exactly reversed.  The public is roughly twice as likely to attribute poverty to laziness or lack of will power now compared with a decade ago.   The numbers thinking the government should spend more on the poor has steadily declined.


People are also much readier to accept the inequalities of the market.  In 1997, slightly more people thought it unfair that those on high incomes could buy better health care or education than the rest of the population than took the opposite view.   Now nearly twice as many think buying better health care or schooling is perfectly acceptable as donít.


Various factors contribute to explaining the shift to the right in social attitudes.  Our recent qualitative work, financed by the Anglo-German Foundation and carried out at University of Kent, examined how people discuss fairness and government services.  A strong theme across our interviews was the acceptance of inequalities.  While the better off should be expected to contribute in the same way as everyone else does (and tax avoidance by the super-rich was seen as just as outrageous as benefit cheating by the poor), there was little support for redistributive taxation.  Such attitudes are buttressed by a strong and widespread belief that opportunities to succeed, while not entirely equal, are open to those prepared to make the effort across society.  Why fleece the better off when they pay in just as much as anyone else, and anyway we all stand a reasonable chance of getting there if only we try hard enough?


Opportunity for all and  tolerance of income inequalities are strong themes in New Labour politics.  Turning that round, sharply progressive tax and direct interventions to help the most vulnerable become unacceptable.  The new policy proposals simply reflect a long-term shift in public attitudes.


For a download of the complete working paper please click here

Peter Taylor-Gooby is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent and author of 'Reframing Social Citizenship' to be published shortly by Oxford University Press.