This really is one of the most interesting and unpredictable general elections we’ve seen for decades. The outcome is entirely uncertain and it’s not unlikely that we’ll be waiting for some time – perhaps longer than in 2010 - to see a confirmed arrangement between parties emerge. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain; the next government has its work cut out. The word ‘inherited’ appears to have become by-word for ‘blame’ when it comes to explaining controversial policy making, such as the current administration’s austerity programme. Alastair Campbell wrote an interesting blog about this back in 2013, while more recently the Chancellor makes reference to it in an article published by the Daily Telegraph.
No matter whose ‘fault’ the issues are the fact is there are many of them and they are real concerns for the British public. For the last 32 years we’ve been examining public views on key issues through British Social Attitudes and its sister study Scottish Social Attitudes. Based on our data, here are just three of the headaches we think the next government will face:
The eternal question - Europe
The majority of us are Eurosceptic – our latest British Social Attitudes survey found 62% of Brits support either leaving the EU or reducing its powers. And although an anti-EU stance is common where we might expect – among supporters of UKIP and the Conservative party, for example - it’s also gathering pace in unexpected places. As many as 43% of those who feel European now say they want the EU’s powers reduced.
As the table below shows, Euroscepticism has been simmering away since the mid to late nineties. Since 2012 however the feeling has increased, having peaked in 2012 at 67%. However, the problem isn’t that straightforward. While we’re highly Eurosceptic, when given a choice between staying in or leaving, a majority (57%) say they want to stay. So the picture is complicated and people’s views on this issue are highly nuanced and emotive. The next government will have to be both bold and sensitive to navigate this complex terrain.
Our treasured institution – the NHS
92% of the public agree that the NHS is facing a funding crisis. This is a big problem for us all but far from straightforward to address, not least because although the nation agrees on the severity of the problem there is no consensus on the best way to tackle it. As Penny Young suggested in her BSA blog in March, finding a solution that’s both workable and acceptable to the public will require strong leadership and persuasiveness, traits that numerous polls suggest most of the party leaders lack.
Our findings show that around a quarter of the public support raising money for the NHS through an hypothecated tax. 17% support the NHS receiving more through current taxation. However 27% of the public believe that the NHS needs to live within its existing budget and can’t be fixed simply by throwing more money at it.
What about Welfare?
The Coalition’s austerity programme, introduced to reduce the deficit, seems to have been largely accepted by the public. For example, despite increasing poverty among working age people, only 30%, want to see more government spending on welfare benefits.
However, the gap between the Left and the Right is growing. Since 2010, those who identify with the Labour Party have become more supportive of spending more on welfare and more sympathetic to the unemployed, while the views of Conservatives have changed less or not at all. In 2014, just 17% of Conservative identifiers agreed with spending more on welfare, compared with 44% of Labour supporters. Added to this is the conundrum of pension benefits. Although pensioners are the nation's priority for any additional spending on welfare, support for this group is lower than in the past. Yet we have a rapidly ageing population in need of state pensions. So the new government will have to walk the welfare tightrope, balancing increasingly polarised views and acknowledging that although there has been a certain degree of austerity acceptance so far, the public will have its limit.
These are just three issues that the next government will ‘inherit’ and which lie at the very heart of UK’s existing structure, whether constitutionally or institutionally. The importance of handling these issues - and others like it - effectively cannot be overstated. Whatever the result of today’s election, let’s hope the next government is ready to take the lead on the litany of challenges currently facing Britain over the coming parliament.