Challenges facing the next government

Sir John Curtice outlines some of the challenges facing the next government, based on analysis from our latest British Social Attitudes survey.
The front elevation and doorway of 10 Downing street.

Britain has been through a lot since it last went to the polls in December 2019. Thanks primarily to COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war, it has faced the worst public health crisis in a century, the worst inflationary spiral since the 1970s, and the highest NHS waiting times ever. The latest British Social Attitudes report, published by the National Centre for Social Research, shows that this experience has often had a profound impact on public opinion and that, as a result, the climate of public opinion facing the next administration could well be a challenging one.

COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis both raised questions about the extent of inequality in Britain. During the pandemic, levels of morbidity and mortality were higher among those living in less well-off areas. The especially high increase in food prices affected those on low incomes particularly hard. Not surprisingly therefore, 26% now say they are ‘struggling’ on their household income, up from 17% in in 2020. Meanwhile, 73% now believe there is a great deal of poverty in Britain, compared with 68% in 2019.

The pandemic had a particular impact on the NHS. Diagnoses and interventions were delayed, leading to a severe backlog of demand for health care which the service is still struggling to reduce. Meanwhile, social care services were put under heavy pressure during the pandemic, not least because of the difficulties in controlling the spread of the disease among the especially vulnerable residents of care homes.

The public are now deeply unhappy about the state of both services. Even though spending on the NHS is markedly above what it was before the pandemic, just over half (52%) are dissatisfied with the NHS, twice the proportion (25%) in 2019. Even more (57%) are unhappy with social care services, up 20 points on 2019.

It is not just spending on the health service that has increased. So also has public spending – and taxation – in general. As a proportion of the nation’s wealth, both have risen by record amounts during this parliament. And past experience, most notably what happened in the wake of the tax and spending increases that occurred under the last Labour government, would lead one to anticipate that this expansion would have seen the public swing away from backing further tax and spending increases.

Yet the public reaction has perhaps been relatively muted so far. True, support for increasing taxes and spending on ‘health, education, and social benefits’ is, at 46%, somewhat lower now than it was in 2019, when it stood at 53%. However, this seven-point fall is a little less than half the 15 point fall – to just 31% – that occurred during the last five years of the New Labour government of 1997-2010. 

Much of the election campaign has been dominated by promises not to increase taxes. Yet, it would appear that for around half of voters the level of taxation is currently less of a concern than the state of the public services. Indeed, it may be that the experience of the pandemic, in which the government rescued the labour market from the worst effects of lockdown, has changed people’s views on how big a role government should have in the nation’s economy.

It was widely anticipated that the implementation of Brexit, the path to which was cleared by Boris Johnson’s success in 2019, would result in a reduction in the level of immigration. Indeed, freedom of movement between the UK and the EU was brought to an end. However, in the event, net migration to the UK reached a record high in 2023, partly as a result of more international students attending British universities and partly because of a need to fill vacancies in the NHS and social care.

This high level of immigration appears to have reversed what hitherto had been a trend towards more favourable attitudes towards immigration. For example, in 2019, 48% thought that migrants coming to Britain were good for the country’s economy, up from 30% in 2014. That figure edged up further to 51% in 2021. Now, however, it has fallen back to 40%.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the high level of immigration has also caused some to re-evaluate the impact of Brexit on migration to the UK. As many as 48% now believe that leaving the EU has served to increase the level of immigration to the UK, an outcome that only 8% had anticipated in 2018.

Equally, the last few years of financial difficulty have also been accompanied by increased doubts about the economic benefits of Brexit. As many as 71% now believe the economy is worse off as a result of Brexit – well above the half (51%) who feared such an outcome in 2019.  

Meanwhile although not much discussed by political parties, attitudes towards Brexit, along with other ‘identity’ issues such as immigration, are still related to which party people support. Of those who support the UK being outside the EU, 45% identify as Conservative, while 49% of those who oppose Brexit identify as Labour.

Doubts about Brexit together with some of the other policy challenges that have faced the country during the last four years have also undermined people’s trust and confidence in how they are governed.

For example, 45% now say they ‘almost never’ trust ‘governments of any party to put the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party’, up 11 points on 2019 and a record high ever since the question was first asked in 1986.

And those who doubt the benefits of Brexit (including many Leave voters), those who are dissatisfied with the health service, and those are struggling on their current income are all more likely to say they do not trust governments to put the country’s interest first. For example, 52% of those who are dissatisfied with the NHS almost never trust governments, compared with 32% of those who are satisfied.

Over the past four years, the British people have become more concerned about poverty and financial hardship, very unhappy about the state of some of its public services, doubtful about the wisdom of Brexit, questioning of the benefits of record levels of immigration, and lacking in confidence in how the country is governed. While they may not be in despair about their country’s future, they do appear to be worried. Turning this pessimistic mood around could well be one of the most formidable challenges facing the next government.