It's a policy knockout

What policy do people most want the government to pursue in 2013? There's a clear winner
December 12, 2012

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In the end it comes down to a choice of which to punish: the world’s poorest people, or some of the world’s richest companies. By a clear margin, the public thinks the top priority for Britain in 2013 is to crack down on companies that use accounting ploys to avoid paying taxes here on profits made within the country.

That is the outcome of a unique polling exercise that YouGov has conducted for Prospect. We asked people to consider 16 policy proposals. We wanted to find out what voters most want the government to do in 2013. Instead of asking whether they supported or opposed each idea, we asked them to choose between them.

We did this by organising a knockout tournament like, say, Wimbledon or the FA Cup. For round one, we arranged the 16 proposals into eight pairs and asked respondents in each case which they thought would be better for Britain. The next day, the eight “winners” went forward into round two, where they were arranged into four pairs. Day three saw the semi-finals, contested by the four victors in round two. Day four saw the final, between the two semi-final winners.

The way the contest unfolded sheds a bright, even harsh, light on what really matters to people at the end of 2012.

Round one

Little surprise that one of the most emphatic “victories” was for doing more to fight unemployment. The alternative, doing more to reduce inflation, is considered less vital these days, for it remains subdued, even if above the government’s 2 per cent target. Getting people back to work is plainly seen as the more urgent priority. Perhaps more surprising is that two “bash the rich” policies, both very popular when tested on their own, attract little support when pitched against other policy ideas. A “mansion tax” on properties worth more than £2m loses out to a cut in Britain’s spending on overseas aid, while a three-to-one majority reckon it’s more important to nationalise the railways than to impose a maximum pay limit of £1m.

We pitched two right-wing favourites against each other: ending all immigration versus Britain leaving the European Union. By a narrow margin, immigration is considered the higher priority, although more than one voter in three said “neither” (26 per cent) or “not sure” (11 per cent).

Likewise we tested two great, politically sensitive public services against each other. By four-to-three, improving the National Health Service (NHS) is seen as more vital than raising standards in state schools. And, forced to choose, most of us would prefer the government to go after companies that avoid paying tax on profits rather than “welfare cheats.”

One pair of policies produced a near-tie. When we pitched tougher bank regulation against tougher sentences for criminals, the public is evenly divided, 44 per cent each way. We had to go to decimals to discern the “winner”: tackling the banks “won” by 44.4 per cent to 44.1 per cent. (By two-to-one, Conservative voters prefer to go after criminals. The figures for Labour and Liberal Democrat voters are almost exactly the opposite.)

Round two

The two big winners in round two, beating their rival policies by more than three-to-one, are the NHS (over railways privatisation) and bank regulation (over the right to sack misbehaving MPs between elections). On the evidence of this exercise, socialist ideology and constitutional reform have limited appeal, when set against other priorities.

The other two contests produce narrower results, with tax-avoiding companies and overseas aid regarded as more urgent targets than immigration and (by a whisker) unemployment. But was the tightness of these contests a sign of uncertainty over Britain’s priorities—or an indication that these were tough draws between strong contenders, like a Murray-Federer match at Wimbledon?


Given that the four surviving policies had each “won” twice and therefore demonstrated widespread appeal, the semi-finals produced strikingly clear results. In the world of corporate shenanigans, cracking down on tax avoidance beats bank regulation by more than two-to-one. And when it comes to the work of government spending departments, voters are keener to reduce Britain’s aid budget of around £8bn than to get better care from the £106bn health budget.

This runs directly counter to traditional saliency questions. Health always comes at or near the top of public concerns, along with jobs and crime—other issues that displayed limited appeal in this knock-out exercise. I suspect two forces are at work. First, voters have little faith in government competence, whereas a cut in aid funding is relatively straightforward to arrange. Something that can definitely be done, however modest, is preferred to a much larger aspiration that may not be achieved.

Secondly, it looks as if overseas aid is especially unpopular with lower-paid people—those who struggle to make ends meet. They are plainly attracted by a measure that could reduce their taxes without jeopardising public services here in Britain.


So the final choice is a cut in overseas aid versus a crackdown on tax-avoiding companies. And the winner is…. tackling corporate tax avoidance, by 56 per cent against 36 per cent. Conservative voters divide evenly, while Labour voters prefer to clamp down on tax avoidance by two-to-one—a preference shared by an even larger, four-to-one majority of Liberal Democrats.

It’s possible that these figures partly reflect the news agenda. In the days leading up to this knockout policy cup, the actions of companies such as Amazon, Starbucks and Google were making headlines. At another time, the figures might work out differently. That said, it is striking that the two finalist policies brushed aside more traditional policy concerns along the way. It looks as if millions of voters these days have lost faith in the government’s ability to solve difficult and fundamental long-term social problems. Instead they want Whitehall and Westminster to tackle issues that, in their view, not only cry out for action, but which look sufficiently clear-cut for ministers to be able actually to sort out.