Spencer Livermore: Voters still want to know how Labour will pay for policies
Jeremy Corbyn has some attractive business policies, but people worry about where the money will come from.
With the reputation of elites at an all-time low, and politics seemingly more polarised than ever, who do the public now trust to manage the economy, and do they view business as friend or foe?
New research carried out by BritainThinks shows that – while trust has declined in all institutions – it’s clear that business is no exception. The anti-elite mood is particularly prevalent, with business generally perceived as ‘out for itself’ and ‘looking after number one’. Media stories about zero-hours contracts, off-shore tax havens and executive pay are front-of-mind for many voters, and serve to reinforce the view that few companies are genuinely on the side of the consumer.
That said, many smaller businesses do enjoy a far stronger reputation with voters. Where big business is frequently seen as distant and impersonal, even viewed with suspicion – particularly foreign-owned multinationals – smaller and family-owned business are credited as being friendly and making a strong contribution to their local communities.
But even when trust is low, people do take business extremely seriously as the driving force of the economy. Business growth and profit is regarded as beneficial for the country’s strength and international reputation, and business generally is seen as an important source of income for the country. Particularly worrying to many then, is the strong perception that businesses in the UK are beginning to struggle. As the consequences of Brexit are starting to be felt, voters are seeing shops on the high street closing, people they know struggling to find work, and businesses moving overseas.
Voters are worried that a weakened business sector will damage the economy – and that they’ll be the ones left paying the price. So it’s not surprising that our research revealed a strong desire amongst the public for politicians to protect and champion business – 82 per cent of voters in our survey agreed that the government should do more to support UK businesses.
Unfortunately for the politicians though, while business is not always well-regarded, politicians are trusted even less. 54 per cent of the public say they trust businesses more than politicians; just 8 per cent say they trust politicians more than business. Similarly, two thirds of the public say that businesses are more in touch with the public than politicians are, while just 9 per cent say the opposite.
So how do the two main political parties fare when voters are asked to evaluate their policies towards business? In focus groups, the Conservatives are seen to share many of the same attributes as big business, being considered as ‘ruthless’, ‘out for themselves’, ‘elitist’ and ‘for the rich’. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the Conservative Party is seen as particularly good for big business, with 34 per cent of voters favouring their approach over Labour’s. The Conservatives are also seen as the safest pair of hands to manage the economy overall, with 40 per cent of voters thinking that the Conservatives are the best party for the UK economy, compared to 31 per cent who say Labour is.
Views of Labour’s policies towards business are more complicated. At first sight, Labour’s policies are attractive and speak to the issues that matter most to people. Raising the minimum wage, helping small businesses, and strengthening workers’ rights are all backed by a majority of the public when they don’t know these policies are Labour’s. However, when these policies are associated with Labour, there is a notable drop in support, with the immediate reaction being ‘how will they pay for it all?’ This question of where the money will come from is a consistent concern, repeated when Labour’s nationalisation plans are discussed. Initial views are positive, but concerns about the cost rapidly change peoples’ views.
These specific questions of affordability speak to a wider concern about Labour’s ability to deliver: that while they may be caring, they are still not competent. Labour continues to be seen as the less-good option to manage the economy, and it’s clear they are still a long way from being trusted with people’s money. As one swing voter said, “they’re frightening – if they came into power they would just spend”.
Spencer Livermore is a partner at BritainThinks.
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