On Saturday, the One Nation Group and the Tory Reform Group held a conference. Yesterday, Liz Truss was interviewed by the Mail on Sunday. Danny Kruger recently published a new book. Rory Stewart is about to do so, and so is David Gauke. Onward’s Future of Conservatism project continues.
A surge of centre-right activity is to be expected during the party conference season – though there is more intellectual energy about than, say, during the middle of the 1990s, when there was no Policy Exchange, no Centre for Social Justice, no Onward, no Bright Blue, no Respublica, no Localis, and the Centre for Policy Studies was in the doldrums.
I plan to write about the One Nation event tomorrow and the Truss interview on Tuesday. (Andrew Gimson has already reviewed Kruger’s book for this site, and will be turning to Gauke’s and Stewart’s in due course.) Today, I return to ConservativeHome’s own work on reducing demand for government, via some new polling.
A snap summary of our project: the state is too big – and weak – and tax is too high. Recent experience has reminded us that tax cuts must walk in step with spending restraint. In other words, taxes can’t meaningfully be cut without reductions in the supply of government. And it is very hard to reduce that supply without also reducing demand.
How? If a child grows up in a strong family, goes to a good school, and later gets work and stays in it, his demand for, say, mental health services, youth offending services, drug, debt and alcohol counselling, prisons, probation and benefits will, in all likelihood, be relatively low.
Stronger families, better schools and more work aren’t a cure-all: demographic pressures will continue to drive health and pension spending upwards. But more of all three would make a big economic and social difference: for example, one estimate is that mental health problems cost the economy £118 billion a year. Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice have been labouring in this vineyard for the best part of 20 years.
But if voters don’t take the point, progress will be very limited – assuming, of course, that a coherent programme to reduce demand for government can be drawn up in the first place, and that at least one political party, hopefully the Conservatives, then take it up.
So what do they think about government? Do they want a smaller state? Are they yearning to be free? Or do they want government to do more? Do they want security rather than liberty, and think that only the state can provide it? And what do they think of the service that government provides in the first place? Looking at this new research alongside Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling reinforces a familiar truth: the answers you get hinge on the questions you ask.
“My research confirmed in various ways, most voters, including a significant chunk of Tories, do not see government primarily as an expensive nuisance,” our proprietor wrote on this site.
“More than two thirds agreed that “people have a right to things like decent housing, healthcare, education and enough to live on, and the Government has a responsibility to make sure everyone has them”; only a quarter preferred the statement “people should provide for themselves and not expect the government to provide for them.”
New polling for Public First finds much the same. Asked whether the state should do less and do it better, or whether it should do more and do it better, respondents plumped by 62 per cent to 22 per cent for the latter.
So libertarians and conservatives face an uphill slog in making the broad case for a smaller state. (And as someone who believes in it, I have to add that I’ve never heard anyone outside the rarefied world of conservative politics talk about it.) Nonetheless, it doesn’t follow that because most people believe that the state should provide public services – whether directly or not – they also think that it provides them well.
Lord Ashcroft wrote that “people thought…the state did things badly”, and Public First finds support for this view. Twenty six per cent of those polled said that national and local government works well – I’m surprised the total was this high – and 47 per cent that they work badly.
As James Frayne of Public First puts it: “this is the great paradox. People seem to want more and done by the state but are less and less happy with what they’re getting”. And although voters tend to support big government in general, at least if all this research is correct, they don’t necessarily do so on specifics. For example, Lord Ashcroft’s polling had a different flavour looking forwards.
“Asked whether the Government’s priority should be to increase spending, reduce debt or cut taxes, people were unhelpfully almost evenly divided between the three, with just over a quarter saying they didn’t know,” he wrote.
“There was a marked difference between political groups…one in three 2019 Conservatives prioritised reducing debt, compared to just 13 per cent of Labour voters, while 43 per cent of Labour voters prioritised higher spending, compared to 15 per cent of 2019 Conservatives….those wanting to reduce debt are firmly in the more prosperous and secure top-right quadrant, while those wanting to see tax cuts prioritised are in the less secure, largely Leave-voting bottom right.”
And Public First finds support for more state action is unevenly spread. The provision of health, a welfare safety net and education is a given. But while 54 per cent of respondents said that government should help people with childcare, only 16 per cent replied that it should help people stop using their smartphones so much.
It also asked about government action in the following areas: helping people to eat more healthily (53 per cent approved); teach their children basic skills (support came in at 48 per cent); stop smoking (37 per cent); drink less alcohol (33 per cent); stop betting so much (30 per cent); access contraception (29 per cent), and help them play and interact better with their children (24 per cent). So while there is significant support for a bigger state, that backing is far from overwhelming.
There don’t seem to be differences worth noting between the views of older voters and those of younger ones, although women, perhaps counter-intuitively, are slightly less pro-intervention (though not when it comes either to contraception or childcare).
There’s lots more detail in the Public First polling about people’s views on Parliament, the civil service, judges, the armed forces and the NHS, and I expect to return to it in due course. Considered alongside Lord Ashcroft’s research, in the context of reducing demand for government, my take is that the challenge, while certainly difficult, is a long way from hopeless, and that there is considerable voter support for tax cuts and debt reduction.