The proportion of people who believe that British society is unequal is at its highest level in almost a quarter of a century, research suggests.
Nearly two-thirds (64%) of people polled by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) at the end of 2020 agree that “ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”.
This is up from 57% in 2019 and the highest proportion since 1998.
The annual British Social Attitudes survey also found that 64% agree there is “one law for the rich and one for the poor” – up from 56% in 2019.
NatCen said attitudes towards the unemployed and welfare provision had become substantially more liberal before the coronavirus pandemic, which maintained this shift.
Its annual report was based on two online surveys – an extra one in July 2020 of 2,413 participants and its regular survey of 3,964 people towards the end of the year.
Less than half of those surveyed (42%) at the end of last year agreed that most unemployed people in their local area could find a job if they really wanted one – the lowest proportion since 1996.
Almost a quarter (24%) want benefits for the unemployed to be prioritised for extra Government spending – up from 15% in 2018 and more than three times the proportion that said this in 2007.
For the first time since before the pandemic, less than half of people (45%) said benefits for the unemployed were too high and discouraged people from finding a job.
More than half (55%) said they believe these benefits are too low and cause hardship.
But the report noted that attitudes towards the unemployed remain less favourable than they were in the 1980s and 90s, adding: “At the moment at least, it cannot be said that the pandemic looks set to inaugurate an era in which the public is keener than ever before for the welfare state to provide a substantial safety net for those of working age.”
It also said it does not seem that the pandemic has led to “unprecedented levels of support for governmental action to reduce inequality”.
The report also found increased support for more flexibility at work, and more people than ever thinking that paid work is “very good” for people’s health.
Some 41% think paid employment is very good for people’s mental health – up from 26% before the pandemic – while the proportion believing it is good for people’s physical health rose from 17% to 27%.
The pandemic also appears to have exacerbated an existing trend of a more questioning attitude towards the law and conformity, researchers said.
Almost a third (31%) disagreed that “the law should always be obeyed, even if a particular law is wrong” – up from 23% in 2019.
The report also found that trust in Government increased following Brexit, but the division between Remainers and Leavers is still in place.
For the first time, Eurosceptics are more trusting and confident in the Government than Europhiles – 31% of those who voted Leave trust the Government to put the national interest first compared to 17% of Remain voters.
Sir John Curtice, NatCen senior fellow, said: “Faced with Covid-19 restrictions and increased economic insecurity, people in Britain have adopted a more liberal attitude to authority, while concern about inequality has grown.
“However, despite the impact of the pandemic on our lives, these trends do not signify a new direction in the public mood.
“Rather, in many ways the pandemic has reinforced opinions and attitudes that had already become increasingly common in Britain in recent years.
“In many respects it looks as though the landscape of public opinion in the post-pandemic world may well look a relatively familiar one.”
He added that Brexit has left Britain “divided between one half of the country who now feel better about how they are being governed and another half who, relatively at least, are as unhappy as they have ever been”.
Gillian Prior, NatCen deputy chief executive, added: “At the same time as we have become more likely to view paid work as important for our mental and physical health, we’ve also become more concerned about inequality, with support for additional unemployment benefits growing during the crisis.”
A Government spokesman said: “This report highlights the vital importance of levelling up in every part of the UK.
“By empowering local leaders, boosting living standards, improving public services, and regenerating our town centres and high streets we will ensure opportunity is spread more equally across the whole country.
“As we recover from the pandemic, vulnerable households across the country will also be able to access a new £500 million support fund to help them with essentials and the upcoming Spending Review will focus on supporting jobs and delivering on people’s priorities.”
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