On the right and right-on: a portrait of Britain today

Most people are politically Conservative but socially liberal, survey reveals
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The Independent Online

More people see themselves as Conservative voters than Labour for the first time in 20 years, according to a significant annual survey of social attitudes.

Fears over the state of the economy and disaffection with 12 years of Labour rule have resulted in a significant lurch to the right among voters, with an increasing number abandoning the notion that the Government should reduce inequality. And instead of following party lines, more people are adopting an individualistic approach to politics and the economy.

According to the annual British Social Attitudes report 32 per cent of Britons now categorise themselves as Conservative voters, compared with just 27 per cent who say they support Labour. This is the first time that the Tories have been on top since 1989, when they were five percentage points ahead of Labour.

Most Britons still say they support moves to create a more socially inclusive and tolerant society. But when it comes to the state of the economy, more people now favour Tory-style tax cuts, with less emphasis on the redistribution of wealth.

Only two in five of those questioned said they now support higher taxes, a significant shift from 1997 when 62 per cent of voters were prepared to dig into their pockets to fund an increase public spending. Just over half the population now believe that taxes should remain static, the highest proportion since 1984 (although only one in 10 are prepared to countenance cuts in spending on health and education).

Attitudes have also hardened on the question of whether the state should try to help the disadvantaged by reducing the gap between the rich and poor. Only two in five people now believe that the Government should encourage the redistribution of wealth, yet in 1994 more than half the population (53 per cent) supported such an approach.

The latest figures have been compiled using data from 2007 and 2008, before the worst of the recession struck. Some experts believe that were a general election to be held in the spring, some voters' views towards helping the less fortunate may have softened.

However, before the recession took hold, public opinion had become noticeably unsympathetic towards the unemployed, with just 55 per cent of people believing that the Government should provide a decent standard of living for those without a job, compared to 85 per cent 20 years ago.

While voters seem to favour economic policies that reward the individual, they also want the country to continue becoming a more socially liberal place that tolerates formerly controversial lifestyle choices. Only 36 per cent of people now believe that homosexual sex is wrong, compared with 62 per cent who thought the same in 1983. Similarly, the number of people who strongly believe that couples with children should get married has dropped from 25 per cent in 1989 to just 14 per cent now.

Britain remains a country where people believe in religious tolerance and freedom, with 70 per cent of people – including 60 per cent of the non-religious – believing that "we must respect all religions". A clear majority, however, believe religion should take a back seat when it comes to politics. Three-quarters maintain that religious leaders should not try to influence voting behaviour, and just over two-thirds (67 per cent) think religious leaders should stay out of government decision-making.

But not all religions are treated with equal respect. In gauging people's tolerance of different faiths, the researchers found that "no other group elicits so much disquiet" as Muslims, who have had to contend with rising Islamophobia. To gauge attitudes towards different faiths, respondents were asked whether they would be happy with a large church or a mosque being built in their neighbourhood. While only 15 per cent objected to a church, 55 per cent of those questioned said that they would be bothered by the construction of a large mosque.

The one lifestyle choice where public opinion seems to have hardened is towards the consumption of cannabis, which is now available in increasingly strong variants. Throughout the 1990s support for the legalisation of cannabis increased, and by 2001 only 41 per cent of people believed it should be illegal. Now, that figure has risen to 58 per cent. The proportion of people who thought that cannabis was a significant factor behind acts of violent crime also rose, from 45 per cent in 2001 to 55 per cent six years later.

Elizabeth Fuller, co-author of the survey's chapter on attitudes towards drugs, said there had been a "hardening of public attitudes" towards cannabis, which "seems to reflect growing concern about the impact [it] can have on individuals and society as a whole".