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Are voters ready for Britain’s economy to be rewired?

Phillip Inman

Voters are becoming more open to calls for a radical change to the way the economy is organised and more accepting of the role of government in pushing through significant reforms, according to a major poll of public attitudes last week.

Sixty per cent of respondents to a YouGov poll of more than 1,600 people were in favour of the next government making “moderate” or “radical” changes to the way the British economy is run, while only 2% said the government should leave the economy as it was. Those in favour of change split between 29% who backed moderate policies and 31% who wanted a more radical agenda.

A breakdown of respondents by their political allegiance showed Labour voters were the biggest supporters of radical change with 59% in favour. But a substantial number of Conservative supporters also said they wanted either “moderate” (35%) or “radical” (9%) change to the way the economy was run, highlighting demand across the political spectrum for an end to the status quo.

The poll, which asked 19 questions about attitudes to government tax and spending policies, goes some way to explain why Boris Johnson’s administration embraced large-scale public investment immediately upon coming to power, and why the Labour party has been grabbing the headlines with radical policies to increase public ownership and investment.

The IPPR thinktank, which commissioned the survey, said it was clear from the results that “the desire for change is widespread across the electorate” and that most people see the government as the main agent of change. Carys Roberts, the IPPR’s chief economist, said it was striking that only 2% of respondents ticked the box for no change.

“As might be expected, Labour supporters are most in favour of the most dramatic shift, while Conservative supporters were more likely to favour smaller changes,” she said.

The poll was conducted before Labour revealed its plan to take control of BT’s broadband business, install a £20bn super-fast public network by 2030 and offer it free to households. Jeremy Corbyn said rolling out full-fibre broadband to every part of the country would, among other benefits, encourage businesses to locate in smaller towns, limiting commuting and carbon emissions.

The survey asked who supported or opposed a significant increase in public spending to limit climate change and more than 60% of respondents said they did.

Illustrating how green politics has broken out of its leftwing confines to be embraced by a wider audience, a majority of Tory voters (53%) either strongly agreed or tended to agree, along with 91% of Liberal Democrats and 83% of Labour party supporters.

A large minority of Brexit party supporters (48%) backed government intervention to tackle climate change, either strongly or to some extent, but they were opposed by a quarter of those in the party led by Nigel Farage. Around 20% of Tory voters were opposed to government action compared with 3% of Labour voters and 2% of Lib Dems.

Respondents to the YouGov survey also supported more spending in a range of areas to combat the climate crisis, including finds for public transport. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

YouGov asked whether respondents would support investments in renewable energy, home insulation and public transport as ways for the government to cut carbon, so it cannot be said that the respondents backed investments in digital broadband. However, there appears to be a growing realisation that, 11 years after the most devastating financial crash of the postwar era, the direction of travel must change.

Most respondents believe the economy is run for the benefit of companies or the richest households, and 44% of Tories – a surprisingly high number, says Roberts – support increasing the level of tax on those earning more than £100,000 a year.

Almost 70% of Conservative voters agreed that capital gains and income from wealth should be taxed more heavily than income from work or at least should be taxed equally. At the moment, the combined effect of income tax and national insurance rates means that workers earning more than £12,000 a year face a higher marginal tax rate than someone drawing hundreds of thousands of pounds a year from investments.

Michael Jacobs, a professor of political economy at the University of Sheffield, said the YouGov poll showed the political risk from proposing radical policies was diminishing.

“The public – including many Conservative voters – do not like the way in which inequality has grown and the way in which the economy seems to benefit mainly the wealthy and big business, and they support a wide range of significant reform policies,” he said. “There is a clear sense here that over the last 10 years since the financial crisis, the centre ground of politics has shifted quite far to the left. At a similar moment after previous crises – in the elections of 1945 and 1979 – our economic model was radically reformed. This election might prove a comparable moment of change.”

Keiran Pedley, a research director at pollster Ipsos Mori, was more circumspect, saying that while his firm’s research indicated an increased appetite for extra spending on public services during the past decade – even if that means some increases to taxes – Labour was not necessarily the beneficiary.

“The question becomes ‘what taxes’ and whether Labour is trusted to spend that money. Our recent polling shows the Conservatives are still more trusted on the economy than Labour, so whereas there might be an appetite for change and to increase public spending, Labour still has work to do to prove to voters that they are up to the job,” he said.

The poll also tested the public’s appetite for ministers to play a greater role in “guiding how private companies invest their money” and for a return to collective union bargaining.

On both these issues the public was cool, with only 22% offering their support for interfering in private investment decisions and 33% saying they approved of a greater role for trade unions, compared with 29% saying they disapproved.

Labour’s plans to hand shares to workers gained 54% support, much of it from the 43% of Tory voters who back the idea. There was even more support for a requirement on companies to share their profits with workers more generously (66%) and to have worker representatives in the boardroom, also 66%.

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University and the author of The Politics of Good Intentions, said earlier this year that while it might have taken the public more than 10 years to conclude a change of direction was needed, the UK had reached that point.

“The idea of getting back to politics as usual is increasingly absurd. We can’t carry on like this, but we can’t carry on like we used to carry on either,” he said.