John Curtice: Tories in tune with public mood – at least for now

DAVID Cameron may not be home and dry, but the polls have certainly long been suggesting that he is the most likely occupant of 10 Downing Street after Britain does eventually go to the polls later this year.

But will a change of occupant at No 10 simply reflect a wish for new management, or will it also reflect a deeper change in the country's mood?

The National Centre for Social Research's latest British Social Attitudes report, published today, suggests that, in some respects, the public are indeed in tune with traditional Conservative messages once more.

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But it also suggests that, while some of the changes Mr Cameron has made to his party's positions have also been essential in making the Tories appear credible once more, he could also usefully go further.

The report identifies two major changes that suggest the public is ready to listen to the Conservatives once more.

First, although the increased spending on health and education on which the current UK Labour government eventually embarked was welcome at the time, now it seems most people feel it is time to call a halt.

Only 39 per cent now favour increased spending on health and education, together with any necessary tax rises to pay for it. This is the lowest level of support for more spending recorded by British Social Attitudes since 1984. It contrasts sharply with the 63 per cent who were in favour just after Labour first came to power.

Second, public support for a more equal society and government action to make that happen is seemingly not what it once was either.

Here the public seem to have taken their cue from the very different messages promulgated by Tony Blair's government, as compared with previous Labour administrations.

In 1993, just before Mr Blair became Labour leader, no less than 58 per cent agreed with the proposition that "the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off". Within a year of New Labour coming to power, that figure had fallen to 39 per cent, and is no more than 38 per cent now.

This mood extends, in particular, to attitudes towards welfare benefits where, again in contrast to previous Labour governments, New Labour has been keen to cut spending and eliminate dependency.

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In 1996, by which time the previous recession was already over, 48 per cent were still of the view that "unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship".

Now the latest reading is only 21 per cent, less than half the figure obtained by the survey at any time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.

Incidentally, Scotland has not been immune from these pressures either. For example, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, even by 2006, support for increased taxation and spending had already fallen away to 41 per cent, down from 55 per cent in 1999.

Scotland may be a little more "left-wing" than England, but even in the days of devolution, that does not necessarily mean it is immune from changes in the wider political mood.

So, when it comes to both tax and spend and promoting equality, Britain looks like a country that might well feel perfectly comfortable with a Conservative government in power.

Certainly, in being willing to say he wants to tax and spend less than Labour (including, not least, in cutting inheritance tax), Mr Cameron has taken less of a gamble than it might seem.

Claims from Labour during the election campaign that a government led by Mr Cameron will harm public services and favour the "few rather than the many" seem set to fall on much stonier ground than they might have done in the past.

But the British Social Attitudes survey also documents a third striking change. Britain is becoming an increasingly liberal society, especially when it comes to matters of sex and marriage.

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Only 36 per cent now say sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are "always" or "mostly" wrong – slightly less than the 39 per cent who say they are "not wrong at all".

This is a very different picture, indeed, from the one that obtained in 1987 at the height of the scare about Aids, when no less than 75 per cent thought same-sex relations were wrong.

Equally, while just over half (51 per cent) agree that "people who want to have children ought to get married", this is well down on the 71 per cent who were of that view in 1989.

Younger people, in particular, have accepted the new norms about relationships and, in so doing, have, despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail, sometimes persuaded their parents to acknowledge them too. So, on these issues, Britain now seems to be as far away from traditional Conservative conceptions of the family as they have ever been. But it is on these issues, of course, that Mr Cameron has forced his party to change.

In same-sex relationships, in particular, the party seems to have left the days when it was defending "Schedule 28" long behind it. Mr Cameron has read correctly the direction of social change.

But he still has more work to do on this front. For the Conservative leader still wants to give tax breaks to married couples that would be denied to cohabiting ones.

It is already a policy on which Mr Cameron is having difficulty in making his sums add up; now it seems that is one area where he has to understand the changing public mood, too.

Of course, public moods are fleeting affairs. Indeed, today's report contains a clear warning to the Tory leader about the problems he may well face after a few years in power.

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For as he cuts government spending in tune with the current mood, then gradually, as the public begins to feel the pain, so the public mood is almost bound to switch back again.

If he does become prime minister, Mr Cameron should enjoy the favourable climate while it lasts – it is unlikely to get any better.

• John Curtice is research consultant to the National Centre for Social Research and professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.