The political centre ground in Britain has shifted to the left since the last general election in 2010, a leading thinktank has concluded from a new assessment of the British Social Attitudes survey.
The authors of the joint report by NatCen Social Research and Essex University warn the Conservatives that the findings suggest they would be wise to ensure that they are not depicted by their opponents as hostile to public services.
The report is published as the Labour party intensifies its warning about “extreme” Tory spending cuts with the release of a poster of an X-ray of a broken leg saying: “Next time, they’ll cut to the bone.”
Dr John Bartle, of Essex University, suggests that the Tories would do well to counter the Labour line of attack. “The general leftward shift that has taken place since the last general election suggests that arguments about the need to shrink the state, reduce waste and cut income taxes will have less traction than in 2010.”
The new analysis found that in an assessment of the “policy mood” from answers to hundreds of different survey questions, voters have moved to the left in the last five years. A score of 50 means that the nation is “dead centre in its political attitudes”. Britain veered towards 45 at the time of the last election and is now heading towards 50, which counts as a move towards the left.
The report’s authors caution against assuming that British voters are on the verge of becoming socialist, voting Labour or for the Greens – who are placing themselves to the left of Labour. They add that the series, which started in the early 1960s, found that voters tend to react against whichever party is in power.
The authors write: “The coincidence of these movements with changes of government in turn suggests that the electorate tended to move in the opposite direction to government policy. It is as if the policy mood was a thermostat: signalling the need to cool things when they get ‘too hot’ under Labour by supporting less government activity – less spending, less welfare and less regulation. The mood falls to the right.
“Equally, when things get ‘too cold’ under the Conservatives, the electorate signal their preference for warmer policy – more spending, more generous welfare and more regulation. The mood increases to the left.”
The report says it would be wrong to make predictions for the election on the basis of the findings. But it suggests that Labour’s message about the need not to shrink the state should penetrate, while the Tories need to be careful.
It says: “Compared with 2010, Labour’s basic political message – that the government should not retreat too much or too quickly – should have more traction. Conservative arguments about the need to shrink the state should have correspondingly less traction. Much now depends on the position staked out by the parties and the ‘tone’ of their campaigns.
“The coalition government’s autumn statement – essentially the first draft of the Conservative election manifesto – advocated a massive reduction in state activity, returning public spending to levels not seen since the 1930s. If Labour now stakes out a position at the centre, many centrist voters – particularly former Liberal Democrats – may be pushed back to Labour.”
This article was written by Nicholas Watt, for theguardian.com on Friday 20th March 2015 23.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010