From the TUC

Is there a swing to public ownership?

05 Nov 2013, by in Politics

There is excitement on right and left about a claimed swing in public opinion towards public ownership. YouGov report The majority of the British public – including the majority of Conservative voters – support nationalising the energy and rail companies.  Free market cheer leader Allister Heath in City AM says

SLOWLY but surely, the public is turning its back on the free market economy and reembracing an atavistic version of socialism which, if implemented, would end in tears.

I’m not so sure that there is anything so new about this.

So I did what polling nerds always do, and turned to the British Social Attitudes Survey . They have asked “How much do you agree or disagree that … major public services and industries ought to be in state ownership” four times – and I plot those who agree or strongly agree below. None beat 50%, but that is because there is a big block of those who neither agree nor disagree – those who disagree or strongly disagree  add up to about 25 per cent in each year.

There is not an exact question on price controls. The nearest is Do you think it should or should not be the government’s responsibility to … keep prices under control.   This has been asked ever since 1985, and I’ve charted both those who definitely think this and the sum of those who definitely and probably think government should keep prices under control. Of course this is not a direct question about price caps and controls, but support is so strong that I suspect that a more direct question would still have got big support.

Of course these two charts do not tell us how important the issues were to voters at any time. A reasonable hypothesis would be that prices are politically salient when inflation is high or living standards in decline.

Nor do the charts tell us whether policies would work, but those arguing about that today might also want to reflect on why there has been such strong persistent support for both public ownership and government action on prices.