Bad news for George Osborne: most voters want more public spending

Survey reveals mood shift towards greater state investment for first time in a decade

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For the first time in a decade, public opinion has started to turn in favour of seeing more spent public services, even if it means higher taxes.

The finding, in the latest British Social Attitudes report, suggests that the Government is going to have increasing difficulties keeping voters onside as its cuts spending in order to reduce the deficit.

Another finding that will worry the Coalition is a sharp drop in satisfaction with the NHS – the first time in a decade that the number saying that they are satisfied has fallen.

David Cameron may hope that he has dealt with the problem of NHS reform by removing Andrew Lansley as Health Secretary and replacing him with Jeremy Hunt, who is thought to be better at selling the Government's message.

But the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, George Osborne, are tied to a programme of spending cuts which have set off industrial action by public sector unions and have reversed years of growing opposition to high government spending.

In 2002, 63 per cent of the public wanted more money invested in public services, even at the expense of tax increases. That figure has been steadily falling for a decade, bottoming out in 2010 at 31 per cent. But the 2011 survey, which involved interviews with 3,311 people on a variety of subjects, showed the first increase in 10 years, with the figure climbing to 36 per cent. The majority – 55 per cent – wants public spending to stay at its present level.

Satisfaction with the NHS peaked at 70 per cent in 2010 but fell to 58 per cent in 2011. More than two-thirds of those questioned made the NHS their first priority.

However, while the recession may be changing people's minds in favour of more spending on health, it also appears to have brought on a hardening of attitudes towards welfare recipients.

Twenty years ago, 26 per cent agreed that if benefits were less generous, people would stand on their own two feet. Now that view is shared by 54 per cent. In 1991, 58 per cent wanted more spending on welfare benefits. That had fallen to 35 per cent when the recession began in 2008 and is now at 28 per cent.

Opposition to immigration has gone up as the number of immigrants from Eastern Europe has risen since the enlargement of the EU, although there is greater tolerance of skilled immigrants than the unskilled. While 59 per cent said the arrival of skilled workers was good for the economy, only 19 per cent said the same about the unskilled.

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