Ignore the British Social Attitudes Survey

Liam Byrne: a man who will say anything to get your vote. And I mean anything.

Every year, to much fanfare, the British Social Attitudes Survey appears, telling us what we all think of the world.

If attitudes have shifted rightwards, then the Telegraph tells us it’s a good a time as any to start shooting peasants and horsewhipping anyone who claims benefits. If attitudes have shifted left, then a few editorials appear in the centre-left press asking the Labour leadership to be a bit bolder, which are naturally completely ignored.

The numbers in it can be manipulated or interpreted to suit any particular perspective or justify any course of action. Which is why the whole exercise is academically interesting but politically of no use whatsoever.

Witness this Telegraph editorial that appeared a couple of days ago. The results of the current BSA Survey are cited as a reason for the government to carry on with its controversial, divisive and frankly unworkable Universal Credit system, a crude device to cut costs and dismantle the welfare safety-net. The almost-certain consequences of the ‘reform’ don’t matter. Why?

Cos it will be popular. And popular is good.

But it isn’t though, is it.

Just because something is popular, or widely believed, doesn’t make it true or innately good.

Lots of people used to think the earth was flat and that the sun revolved us.

Lots of people like U2 and Queen. The Eagles are one of the top-selling bands of all time.

Lots of people think it’s ok to have sandwiches without butter or margarine.

I’m sure a majority of people are in favour of restoring the death penalty and maybe even a majority want to pull out of the EU. They are wrong.

I’m quite sure that the Telegraph is right in so far as many people foolishly think that benefits are too high and we should be harder on the ‘scroungers’. They are mistaken, and usually mistaken because they are uninformed. If all those people who said they were in favour of cutting benefits were asked what the sums involved actually were, I’m willing to bet a significant amount they would give figures much higher than the true level being paid.

For those of us who do consider ourselves left-wing or progressive there is a very good reason to largely ignore exercises like the BSA Survey. Our job is to win the argument, explode myths and change minds regardless of what the prevailing intellectual climate is.

This is why Labour right-wingers like Liam Byrne are so spectacularly incorrect when they choose to base welfare policy on the assumption that most voters hate benefit claimants and want benefits cut, in other words; “Britain is a naturally Conservative country” and that isn’t going to change whatever the left does. A spineless, stupid, ahistorical and conceited view.

Maybe (probably) many voters do currently have a harsh view of ‘welfare scroungers’, although those views start do have an odd habit of altering somewhat at the moment they become personally affected. (Do all the extra people claiming unemployment benefit think that benefits are too high now they are claiming it? Do their relatives?)

Surely the job of the Labour Party is to challenge those widely-held prejudices and posit an alternative narrative, rather than pander to deliberate, tabloid-fuelled lies all in the name of getting a short-term boost in the polls and a few favourable headlines? If they and we can’t do that, then what is point of getting involved in the political process in the first place?

You may have all noticed that now, more than ever, politicians of all stripes are held in almost universal contempt because they don’t appear to have any principles.

Does anyone else think there might be a bit of a lesson there?

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