17 August 2018

Capitalism or socialism? The surprising truth about British voters’ economic views


We hear a lot about what the public thinks about day-to-day, week-to-week politics, via voting intention polling, leader ratings and the like. Topical issues like Brexit as well as scandals and specific policies are also polled extensively.

When it comes to the bigger picture, recent discussion of more fundamental concepts has become dominated by the culture war between social liberals and social conservatives. But while the more traditional left-right divide over the size and role of the state has been supplemented, it hasn’t been supplanted.

This piece is the first in a CapX series probing the British attitudes on the economic battle of ideas. In the latest wave of Number Cruncher polling, we asked a set of questions on ideologies to over a thousand UK eligible voters.

First of all, how positive or negative are people towards capitalism and socialism? The headline figures suggest that neither system elicits a particularly positive reaction. In fact something that’s notable across the two questions is just how negative people are about both ideologies.

Thirty-two per cent of eligible voters have a positive view of capitalism, 52 per cent negative. On socialism, 30 per cent have a positive view, 53 per cent negative. In other words, it is pretty much a score draw.

The breakdowns contain a few surprises. Supporters of both main parties break in the directions you’d expect, but not as sharply as you’d expect. Neither the Conservatives who are positive on capitalism (50 per cent) nor the Labour voters who are positive on socialism (47 per cent) are a majority.

How do demographic groups differ? The generations diverge markedly on socialism, with under-25s (38 per cent) almost twice as likely as over-75s (20 per cent) to have a positive view.

But on capitalism, the age profile was relatively flat – instead the biggest divide seems to be capital itself, in the form of property.

Positive responses to capitalism were far more numerous among outright homeowners (38 per cent) and mortgage-holders (37 per cent) than among private renters (23 per cent) or social renters (15 per cent).

We then tested some agree or disagree statements. Since a number of prominent figures on the left had made statements to a similar effect, we tested “communism could have worked if it had been better executed”. This was a close three-way split between agree (24 per cent), disagree (27 per cent) and neither (27 per cent). Again there was a difference by party, though interestingly 18 per cent of Conservatives agreed.

The big difference on whether communism could have worked was by age, with older people less likely to agree. And although it is hard to judge from small crossbreaks, there seems to be a bit of a step around the age of 45, which would equate to being about 16 at the end of the Cold War. That seems like a bit too much of a coincidence.

We also tested some comparative statements. Respondents were likelier to agree than disagree both that “socialists care about other people more than conservatives” and that “conservatives are more trustworthy with the nation’s finances than socialists”. For a plurality, it seems, the traditional stereotypes about who is caring and who is fiscally competent still hold.

These two questions brought out bigger party differences than age differences –unsurprisingly a majority (59 per cent) of Labour voters thought than socialists were more caring. Seventy-one per cent of Tories thought that conservatives were better with the purse strings, and perhaps encouragingly for the Conservative Party, around 40 per cent of both graduates and under-25s thought so too, with no difference by ethnicity, all of which look more hopeful for the Tory future than demographics alone might suggest.

Overall, what these numbers point to is a looser link between ideological brands and vote choice than might be expected. It may be that partisan politics is becoming more aligned with cultural identity than in the past, and less with economics.

Of course, the two aren’t independent. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan moved many working class social conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic over to the cause of free market economics, and the risk for its proponents is that the current political realignments push social liberals in the opposite direction.

Though it may not be causal, there are at least hints of correlation, with graduates and Remain voters being a bit more likely to lean left on these questions.

In any case, party allegiances now seem to be a poor reflection of views about different economic systems. But although Brexit, and the cultural divisions associated with it, dominate politics for the moment, economic structure and policy still matter hugely, and there is no reason to expect that to change.

Matt Singh is the founder of Number Cruncher Analytics.