NEWS6 October 2021

Covid-19 did not change public’s views on inequality

Covid-19 News Public Sector Trends UK

UK – Public attitudes to inequality and the welfare state did not alter significantly during the pandemic and in some cases remain less liberal than in previous decades, according to Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.

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Curtice, who is also senior research fellow at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), told an Understanding Society event that public attitudes had not altered as drastically as predicted during Covid-19.

“There was a lot of liberal elite commentary about how the pandemic was going to create an opportunity for change in society,” Curtice explained.

“The truth is that as far as policymakers are concerned, they are going to be facing a public that looks very similar to two years ago before the pandemic.”

The results were based on NatCen’s British Social Attitudes surveys, which were repeated with panels of 2,413 and 2,217 people in June 2020 and June 2021 respectively featuring respondents to previous surveys.

Curtice said that on inequality, there was a small increase in people who felt there was ‘one law for the rich and one for the poor’ during the pandemic, but added “it is still not as high as it was for much of the period when Margaret Thatcher and John Major, as agreement with this proposition declined during the era of New Labour”.

There was not a large change in the proportion of people who wanted more radical action to redistribute wealth to take place, added Curtice.

“It is one thing to say it is unfortunate we live in a society that is rather unequal, but it is another thing to say the government should be redistributing incomes from the better off to the less well-off to correct it,” he said.

“There is a bit of a move to the left, a bit of a recognition of inequality. But that still leaves us in the position where the average person is more right wing than in the 1990s.”

Attitudes to welfare had also remained consistent with trends pre-Covid-19, which showed the UK was becoming more liberal towards higher welfare for people of working age.

“Even before the pandemic, we were looking at a society that was less critical of the welfare system than it had been,” Curtice explained.

“We already had an environment in which somewhat greater government support for people of working age was somewhat closer to the public zeitgeist than it would have been a few years ago. It is that that has been going on, rather than public attitudes changing during the pandemic.”

Curtice added that under the Thatcher government, the public said welfare spending was too low, under Tony Blair it was too high, and that the trend pre-pandemic was that people thought it was too low, although not to the extent of the 1980s.

Capping social care, whereby the individual pays a set amount towards their care in old age with the government paying the rest, grew in popularity during Covid-19 at the expense of government subsidising all social care, Curtice said.

“Capping hits the sweet spot between on the one hand Conservatives who are reluctant to see the state paying for things, but on the other hand are concerned about the potential impact of social care on their assets,” he said.