Much is wrong with today’s world. Governments are often bureaucratic and inefficient. Big companies care little for their communities or the environment. Who you know matters more than working hard and playing by the rules.
However, there is little appetite for the kind of radical change that many on the Left advocate. Few want to rip the market economy apart. Today’s demand is for greater security, not greater turbulence.
Those are the key findings of a major four-country survey by YouGov on attitudes to today’s society. We questioned representative samples in Germany, Great Britain, Sweden and the United States. Results of our survey challenge some of the conventional wisdom that is apt to swirl round this debate.
For example, we found that there is NO systematic difference in public opinion between the countries most associated with guided, 'European' capitalism – Germany and Sweden – and those that adopt a less regulated, free-market approach – Britain and America. On most issues, the range of public attitudes is broadly similar; where there are big differences, they seldom divide along the lines of Sweden/Germany versus Britain/US.
Moreover, on most issues we found that centre-left voters are NOT a distinct breed: their attitudes are generally much the same as the rest of their compatriots. As it happens, the country where voters divide most along ideological lines is the one with the LEAST history of ideological politics – the United States.
Our survey was conducted on behalf of the British think tank, Policy Network, ahead of a major conference in Oslo on Progressive Governance. In Britain, Germany and Sweden, left-of-centre parties have suffered their worst election defeats in recent times. The United States has a Democratic president – but the Republicans won last November’s mid-term elections hands down. Is social democracy simply experiencing a short-term, if unusually deep, cyclical downturn, or has it lost its appeal in a more fundamental sense? This what YouGov’s research was designed to explore.
Our research suggests four main lessons.
- Most people in all four countries share aspects of the social democratic critique of today’s world. Here are three statements we tested, and the net 'agree' figures (the proportion agreeing minus the proportion disagreeing) for each country
- However, there is widespread scepticism about the competence of governments. Respondents were invited to pick two general advantages, from a list of four, of governments taking action to change society for the better – and then to pick two disadvantages, again from a list of four.The first point to make is that, in all four countries, more people saw disadvantages than advantages:
- Markets are seen as flawed but necessary As we have seen, big companies are widely thought to neglect the concerns of their communities and the wider environment. Our research also finds that most Britons, Germans and Americans, and almost have of all Swedes, think ‘the market economy is dominated by large corporations which squeeze out small firms’.Yet we found widespread approval of the market economy, when we tested this statement: ‘The market economy – that is, an economy where most goods and services are provided by private companies in a competitive system – is the best way of delivering wealth and prosperity for society’. Here are the results:
- Except in the US, centre-left voters are like most other voters For decades, the working assumption of politicians, academics and journalists has been that left-of-centre voters are fundamentally different from right-of-centre voters. I suspect that assumption often overstated the real differences; but whatever the historical position, our survey suggests that the differences these days are modest, at least in Europe.In the United States, however, Democrats are different from other Americans. Here are two illustrations of how attitudes converge in Europe but diverge in the US.
|‘In general big companies in [country] these days care only about profits – not about the wider community or the environment'||+81||+78||+49||+56|
|‘Who you know is usually more important for getting on in life than hard work and playing by the rules’||+50||+27||+42||+17|
|‘However critical we are of particular government decisions, it remains the case that governments have the power to transform our society for the better’||+32||+30||+34||+14|
|% unable to cite any advantages||50||38||32||58|
|% unable to cite any disadvantages||18||16||29||20|
|Britain %||Germany %||Sweden %||US %|
|Neither agree nor disagree||30||26||34||24|
|Britain %||Germany %||Sweden %||US %|
|% able to cite major advantages of government taking action to change society for the better|
|Supporters of centre-left parties||52||68||60||70|
|% personally willing to pay higher taxes if there were a guarantee that the extra money would be used to improve healthcare, increase benefits for retired people and provide more money for schools|
|Supporters of centre-left parties||52||50||71||68|