The United Kingdom has now reached a tipping point in recent days due to the loosening of lockdown regulations. The second stage in the policy response to the pandemic has begun and one of the main challenges isc related to finding an even balance between economic rehabilitation and strengthening of public trust in their elected leaders. While no major shifts can be seen in the popularity of leaders such as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron (each maintaining approval rates since January of approximately 50%, 42% and 36% respectively), public opinion on the implementation of exceptional economic measures to battle the pandemic are becoming divided across the West.
An interesting feature in the first chart is the level of support for additional borrowing from the oldest age segment (50-65+). Between 55% and 57% of older adults believe in larger expenditure in public services via borrowing- the highest level among all age segments. This effect may be due to the distress that the pandemic caused older members of society, whether via the compulsion to shield or to the pressure on health and social services. Indeed, the pandemic may have brought into focus the inadequacy of their pension income. Two fifths of those aged 65 and over fall into the recognised vulnerable group, constituting some 4 million individuals, who now may be in expectation of new protective schemes in areas related to social care.
The graphs also show that across all ages and regardless of party identification, public opinion largely supports the introduction of novel and radical measures to respond to the post-pandemic economic crisis. Unsurprisingly, this shift finds its highest opposition in conservative voters, who reject radical changes and increased borrowing the most out of all groups. Despite this, over 50 per cent of Conservative voters support increased borrowing and support for drastic changes is high among supporters of all the major political parties. This consensus among the general public could serve to improve cross-party collaboration in the aftermath of the crisis. This collaboration occurred following the 2008 crisis, with major party alignment on austerity policies, although the public consensus was not as strong. Some commentators view these survey results as indicative of a public rejection of these austerity measures, many of which continued until just before the pandemic. However, with a clear majority and an election four years away, it will be interesting to see the government’s choice of action.
What do the charts show?
The graphs display the results of two questions in a public opinion poll related to the appropriate response of the government as it contends with the post-coronavirus landscape. The first chart shows the support for and opposition to additional government borrowing for increased public service spending. This chart is divided by two groups, age and the party for whom respondents last voted. The red bars represent the support on the measure and the blue bars, the opposition. The question was worded ‘To what extent, if at all, do you support or oppose the government borrowing additional money to pay for more spending on public services?’.
A second chart is added for further analysis. It represents the support for the introduction of drastic changes or, by contrast, no changes at all, in the wake of the pandemic crisis. As with the first chart, the data is presented by two groups – age and partisan identity. The red bars display the support rates on drastic changes and the blue bars represent the number of supporters for no changes. The question was worded ‘Thinking about the way the British economy should be run in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis, which of the following comes closest to your view?’. The data originates from YouGov Surveys, used a representative sample of 1663 adults, and was collected on the 24th – 25th of June.
Why are the charts interesting?
The lockdown period has proven to many the importance of the state in safeguarding life and economic wellbeing. Following 65,000 excess deaths, and three months locked down, it is unsurprising that many are experiencing seismic shifts in their relationship to work and the wider economy. Reflective to the enormity of the pandemic, public opinion appears to be supporting further extension of the state via drastic interventionist policies whose appeal seems to extend beyond the crisis period.
Only 12% of Britons expect a quick economic return to health and 39% think that the economic damage will be long term, something that may bolster support for ‘exceptional measures’ for a sustained period. In recent history, attitudes toward cutting government spending in the UK have been volatile. In 1996, there was a peak of support for cuts to public spending of approximately 43%. This declined to 35% in 2006 and by 2016, the figure was 29%.
Post-coronavirus public opinion appears to have accelerated this trend, with surveys indicating increased support for more government spending. This is challenging some long-held beliefs in the economic mainstream, particularly that support for government debt and interventional policy concentrates in the young. Additionally, there has been also a shift in traditional partisan perspectives. Conservatives have been historically more likely to support cutting expenditure than their Labour counterparts, but there has been a marked increase in Conservative support for increased spending via borrowing.
Unemployment has predictably risen in importance for voters. In 2006 only 13% of respondents prioritised unemployment benefits while unemployment stood at 5.4%. Indeed, no priority was lower bar spending on culture and the arts. While lower levels of unemployment in recent years have resulted in lower demand for benefits; the pandemic has seen the number of claimants jump 23% between April and May alone, hitting 2.8 million people. While uptake of the £36 billion furlough scheme has been widespread, with almost 60% of the businesses that ceased trading during lockdown enrolling their entire workforce in the scheme; sadly a quarter of the those enrolled anticipate having to make permanent redundancies at the end of the retention program. Undoubtedly this is likely to impact people’s views, what remains to be seen is the extent and duration of the changes.
Alongside wholly unprecedented changes to work and family life, shifts in attitudes to work-life balance are increasingly evident in public opinion and will likely impact perceptions of government spending in the future. Specifically, public debate about shifting time in the workplace to remote working at home and spending more time with family has been a popular topic among commentators.
Following lockdown, waiting lists for services such as mental health, routine healthcare treatment and chronic diseases have experienced a dramatic accumulation. As users begin to reaccess these services, the inevitable pressure on the sector may result in increased demand for government funding and intervention. Looking at the second chart, some of the radical measures that the government employed during the crisis, for example, the requisitioning of private healthcare facilities, may enjoy continued public support.
Besides health care, environmental policy could also rise up the agenda, for several reasons. First, long term home-working has led people to re-evaluate the need to commute. Secondly, travel restrictions and hygiene concerns have reduced demand for some forms of transport, most notably flights. Lastly, the dramatic effect of the global lockdown on pollution levels and wildlife has been well-evidenced, as researchers predict a 0.3% dip in global carbon emissions in 2020. The pandemic lockdown period has provided an opportunity for environmentalists to study what is being termed as the ‘anthropause’ and its effects on the planet. This may bolster support for environmental regulation. However, with airlines, travel companies and car manufacturers among both the worst polluting sectors and the largest recipients of emergency funding by the Bank of England, it is clear that this has yet to impact policy.
While it is still uncertain how the United Kingdom’s economic policy will be reframed by the pandemic, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have already publicised what they term a ‘Rooseveltian’ approach to the economy, striving to strengthen public spending across multiple sectors of the economy.