There has been a lot of fuss about a poll by Demos and YouGov which, if you believe some of the papers, found that British voters have turned against the Big State. Apparently, a society which has become used to year-on-year real-terms increases in state spending for half a century has suddenly rejected the idea of large-scale public service provision and decided that the state has become way too big.
“We won the argument,” shrieked the Telegraph’s Janet Daly before going on to tell her readers that Labour voters have become disillusioned with the Big State. If anything, Demos went even further, claiming that Labour voters have lost faith in the state.
From what I’ve seen, though, the findings don’t look that dramatic. The former Labour voters surveyed thought:
- The public sector should be more efficient – well find me someone who thinks it shouldn’t.
- People should have more choice in public services – offer people more choice and most will say yes.
- Central government interferes too much in local services – most of the NHS and local authority managers I know think that too.
- The government is no longer a force for good – it was a hugely unpopular government; what the hell do you expect people to say?
- The state is spending too much and cuts are needed – even Alistair Darling thought that.
There’s nothing in these results that indicates a dramatic shift in public opinion. At most, the respondents seem to be saying that the state should be reined in a bit. Anyone who has taken even a passing interest in the country’s finances would come to a similar conclusion.
If anything, public expectations of state provision are continuing to rise. In June, the 2020 Trust published research which found that “citizens expect more from public services, demanding service standards that meet the best that the private sector can offer”.
It is quite possible for people to hold both views simultaneously. They know in the abstract that the public coffers are empty but they still expect more and better from the services that they use. Hardly surprising when you consider that most of us have never known anything other than annual increases in state spending. The problem that will face politicians and public sector managers over the next few years is a rapid divergence between public expectations and the state’s capacity to deliver. That could make things turn nasty.
I just don’t buy all the hubris about the sudden rejection of the Big State. It will take more than some insipid poll findings wildly spun in a few newspaper reports to convince me that our love affair with state service provision is over. A year or so from now, when the public spending cuts start to bite, will people shrug and say, “Oh well, the Big State has had its day,” or will they be outraged as the services they have taken for granted all their lives start to disappear?
We shall see.