Here are two datasets from the British Social Attitudes surveys:
They show very similar trendlines. But reflecting starkly different trends.
The blue line shows the strong move since the 1980s towards wider public acceptance of same sex relationships.
The red dotted line indicates how attitudes to welfare recipients have – over the same period – become progressively much more negative.
We’ve stumbled into a grotesque hall of mirrors where it’s open season on the disadvantaged. Marginalised groups have been sucked into an opinion-and-policy vortex. Negative perceptions become accepted, amplified and then fed back into policy decision making processes.
It’s like a slow motion, never-ending moral panic.
As a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation examines, support for welfare spending is at a historical low, with the public increasingly likely to say that individual characteristics rather than societal issues cause poverty.
And if anything, it’s actually worse than that. Post-crash, we don’t just blame them for their own plight, we blame them for our plight too.
David Cameron’s bizarre claim that ‘we are all Thatcherites now’ begins to make more sense.
Except that of course that Thatcher and her government happily supported Section 28, and helped foster the accompanying hysteria, and that’s a very long way from equal marriage.
There’s no law that says tolerance should increase – or decrease – in tandem. But it is notable, and on the face of it odd, to see the degree of divergence in attitudinal trends that the graph reveals.
Since the 80s, we have become both strongly more and less accepting of different groups.
And this inconsistency points to the importance of understanding what’s going on – not just in relation to one issue area, but across issues. And not just the data and the demographics, but the drivers.
How and why do the long-term dynamics play out differently for different issues and for different groups?
What can be learnt from the different and divergent trajectories in opinion? What does this tell us about what works in campaigning and communications and what doesn’t?
How can this understanding cross-fertilise across sectors, to help build a more informed picture and more effective responses?
These are – to coin a beautifully elegant slogan – ‘bigger than sub-sector’ problems. So we need to look across sectors, as well as taking a longer-term view of change.
Obviously that’s difficult. If something’s on fire then you have to firefight. But it would be great if key sectors could – as well – be better supported to be able to look up, make a broad assessment of the landscape, and what we know and what we don’t, and develop more of a collective response.
It’s important that there’s more to it than fighting a rearguard action on wholly unfavourable terms. Otherwise the space for manoeuvre will just keep getting smaller.
Challenging that dynamic is about political discourse and framing. But it’s also about power, and how to confront, destabilise, refit or transcend – or some other way overcome – underlying power structures.
In campaigning terms, it’s not just about getting a slice of the pie. It’s not even just about the size of the pie. It’s about what sort of pie it is.
All BSA question data is available to download