Pressures on the next government
Our data not only give us an indication of how the public has (and has not) reacted to the five years of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition, they also contain potential lessons for the next administration, irrespective of its partisan colour. This administration, after all, will have to deal with the legacy the last five years have left. We can identify at least three important pressures for the next government so far as public opinion is concerned.
The future of the NHS
The first involves the NHS, a service that is likely to face increasing cost pressures as a result of an ageing population as well as the tendency for the cost of new drugs and other medical interventions to outstrip general inflation. Although the public may be relatively satisfied with the service as it currently stands, people also appear to accept that it is short of money. Nearly three-quarters believe it faces either a “major” or a “severe”’ funding problem. Only around a half (48%) believe the NHS “will still be paid for by taxes” and be “free to all” in ten years’ time. However, there is no consensus about how the issue should be resolved. Many seem to hope that it can be tackled by making the NHS more efficient rather than by pumping more money into it.
Given a set of options as to how the service might be cut back if its budget proves inadequate in future, nearly half (48%) say that it should “stop providing treatments that are poor value for
money”, though whether our respondents could ever agree on what constituted “poor value for money” is perhaps a moot point. When presented with a set of options on how more money might be raised to spend on the NHS, over a quarter (27%) rejected all of the possibilities that were offered and said that the service “needs to live within its budget”.
Meanwhile, only a minority in each case expressed support for any of the possible ways of increasing the NHS’s budget. The most popular idea, backed by around a quarter (24%) was for a tax whose proceeds were dedicated to the NHS, rather more than the 17% who preferred to pay more tax through the existing system. Still, both options are at least more popular than introducing charges for visits to a GP or to A&E (14%), or charging people for the cost of their
food and laundry while they are a hospital inpatient (12%). These possibilities still look as though they are lines that would pose severe political risk to any government that attempted to cross them.
So also, for the moment at least, would be the idea of restricting the NHS to those on lower incomes, thereby requiring most people to take out medical insurance to pay for their care. Although the level of support for going down this path is higher now than it has been at any previous stage during the last twenty years, at 32% this figure still represents only a third of the population. Conservative supporters are no keener on the idea than those who back Labour,
not least perhaps because those who are most likely to be affected – those on higher incomes – are less likely to back the idea. An NHS that is free at the point of use for all is a principle for which support is to be found across the political spectrum – though that does not necessarily mean that it is a principle that it will be easy for the next government to keep on delivering.
Keeping the welfare bill down
One topic on which Conservative and Labour supporters are not entirely in agreement, and certainly are rather less so now than they were five years ago, is welfare. On the question of whether the government should spend more on welfare benefits in general, or on the unemployed in particular, the difference between the views of Labour and Conservative supporters has widened. Even so, that does not necessarily mean that a Labour led administration is going to find itself under pressure to reverse the broad thrust of the Coalition’s attempts to reduce spending on welfare for those of working age. For not even Labour supporters are particularly sympathetic to the plight of the unemployed or to calls for more
welfare spending. Around a half (50%) agree that “around here, most unemployed people could find a job if they wanted to”, while rather less than half (44%) agree that “the government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor”. Over two-thirds of Labour supporters back the ‘benefit cap’, under which benefit claimants cannot receive more than the average household income. At the same time, Labour supporters largely share in the consensus that
the priorities for more spending are retirement pensions (61%) and benefits for people with disabilities (62%) rather than benefits for single parents (20%) or the unemployed (16%).
Maybe the rhetoric of a Labour-led administration on welfare would be different from that of a Conservative-led one, but it seems unlikely that it would have much scope for radically changing the substantive direction of policy without risking an adverse public reaction. ‘Curbing the welfare’ bill is likely to remain a preoccupation of whatever government next faces the task of improving the health of the public finances. Perhaps the real difficulty that will face the next administration is whether it will still be able to meet the public’s expectations in respect of pensions, the one area where welfare still seems to be relatively popular (albeit less popular than perhaps it once was).
Managing our relationship with Europe
One topic on which the parties themselves have rather different views is in respect of the approach that we should adopt towards Europe. As we noted earlier, UKIP want a referendum on Britain’s membership to be held as soon as possible, while the Conservatives want to hold one in 2017 after having renegotiated Britain’s terms of membership. In contrast, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats only favour a referendum in the event of Britain being asked to sign
up to significant further transfers of powers to the European Union.
Yet it seems that whatever the outcome of the election and its aftermath, the government will be under pressure to adopt a ‘tough’ approach to Britain’s relationship with the EU and to be seen to be defending Britain’s interests within the institution. Although only a minority may be committed to the idea of leaving the EU, most voters would like the EU to have fewer powers. Given that this mood has been in evidence among at least half the public since the late 1990s, it seems unlikely to be reversed any time soon, not least thanks to public concern about the level of immigration that has been facilitated by the EU’s freedom of movement provisions. The next administration would seem destined to keep Britain in the ‘slow lane’ in Europe, assuming that it stays in Europe at all.
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