Because more equal societies work better for everyone

What Do People Think about Government Action?

The UK public are both concerned about inequality (82%) and in favour of government action to address it. 69% think that it should be the government’s responsibility to "reduce income differences between the rich and the poor", the highest number for 14 years1.


  • 41% agree that the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off; considerably fewer than those who think the income gap is too large (82%).
  • For the first time since 1995, a significantly higher number of people support rather than oppose government redistribution (41% compared to 30%)2.

Attitudes Towards Income Inequality and Redistribution

By Demography

Public attitudes to redistribution vary sizeably by demographic group.

Party Affiliation

  • There is a large difference in support for redistribution among Liberal Democrat (54%) and Labour (53%) supporters compared to Conservative supporters (25%)4.
  • Since 1987, support for redistribution has remained stable among those affiliating with the Liberal Democrats, increased 4% among those supporting the Conservative Party, and declined by 17% among Labour Party supporters. The differences, therefore, between Conservative Party supporters and supporters of the other two main parties are less pronounced than they were in 19875.

Occupation and Income

  • Working class workers are most likely to support redistribution (46%). However, this group has seen the greatest fall in support for redistribution since 1987 (-8%).
  • Levels of support for redistribution in other occupational groups have remained fairly stable or increased only marginally since 19876.
  • Focus group research found that high income workers are fairly hostile to extensive government action to reduce income and wage differences. Wage inequality is largely viewed as an institutional, global and systemic phenomenon and therefore changes would have to be on a global level7.

Views On Income Redistribution by Demographic Group

% agreeing that government should redistribute income 1987 1995 2003 2007 2012 Change 1987-2012
18-34 50 43 38 30 41 -9
35-54 42 50 42 31 39 -4
55-64 43 46 46 34 43 0
65+ 42 50 42 34 44 2
Occupational Class            
Professional/managerial 40 44 41 32 38 -1
Intermediate (white-collar) 37 42 40 31 40 3
Independent 36 38 36 33 37 1
Intermediate (blue-collar) 40 51 46 32 40 0
Working class 54 56 44 31 46 -8
Party Affiliation            
Conservative 22 25 27 18 25 4
Labour 69 60 52 38 53 -17
Liberal Democrat 54 49 44 41 54 0
All 45 37 42 32 41 -4



In 2012, there was little difference by age in levels of support for government redistribution9:

  • People aged 65 and above are now most likely to support redistribution while the youngest age (18-34) group least likely (44% compared with 41%). In the 1980s, by contrast, the youngest age group was the most likely to support redistribution; it is within this group that we see the biggest decrease in support for redistribution over time (-9%).

Social Security

Despite moderate levels of support for government redistribution, the British public does support some redistributive policies in practice. There is, however, preference for policies that are universal – health and education – rather than targeted, such as those focused on the unemployed. Research showing that there is a negative reaction to the "r word" (redistribution) may explain this variation in support between ‘redistribution’ itself and policies which are redistributive in practice10.

  • Social security - Since 1985 there has been a marked decline in support for the government's role in providing a decent standard of living for the unemployed. In 2012 only 5% ranked social security payments as their highest or second highest priority for government spending, compared to 12% in 1983.
  • Health - Support for the government’s role in providing health care for the sick has remained fairly stable since 1983: 71% now rank this as their highest or second highest priority for government spending, compared to 63% in 1983.
  • Education - Support for the government’s role in providing education has risen by 11% since 1983, with 61% now ranking this as their highest or second highest priority for government spending11.


There is strong public support for certain measures which would reduce taxation for those at the bottom of the income spectrum:

  • 83% of the public supported an increase of the personal tax allowance £10,000 before it was introduced by the coalition12 and 38% approve of the idea to reintroduce the 10p bottom rate of tax with only 12% disapproving13.
  • There is strong support for ‘sin taxes’ on alcohol and tobacco which take more from those at the bottom of the income spectrum. These taxes were the tax people least minded paying (29% of respondents)14 and focus groups have indicated support for a consumption based system of tax despite its impact on the poorest15.
  • Focus group research found the tax people most mind paying is inheritance tax despite it mostly falling on those higher up the income spectrum16. Polling evidence found this came in third place (behind fuel duty and council tax) with 26% saying it was the tax that they most disliked17.
  • Public support for a more progressive  tax system is high. Over four fifths of the population (82%) think that households in the highest 10% income group should pay a greater proportion of their income in tax than households in the lowest 10% income group.

Public knowledge about the UK tax system is limited:

  • Public perception of how the UK’s tax system affects households in different income groups contrasts sharply with the reality.
  • The public believe the UK’s tax system is more progressive than it is, with nearly seven in ten people (68%) believing that households in the highest 10% income group pay more of their income in tax than households in the lowest 10% income group. In reality, households in the highest 10% income group pay a smaller proportion of their income in tax than households in the lowest 10% income group.

Public Perceptions, Preferences and the Reality of the Tax Distribution

Living Wage and Low Pay

Survey research suggests that there is strong public support for the living wage:

  • 60% believe that government should increase the minimum wage to ensure that everyone is paid enough to meet reasonable living costs, even if this results in job losses18.
  • Three quarters of working people (74%) say they would be more likely to buy products or services from a company that pays its workforce the Living Wage rather than the Minimum Wage19.
  • Support for increasing low wages is also supported by focus group research. This found that, among participants, there was ‘a strong consensus that all work should pay enough to live on, or a ‘living wage’20.

High Pay

There is strong public support for specific policies to tackle high pay at the top:

  • 70% think that that ordinary employees should be represented on the remuneration committees that decide how much executives get paid21.
  • 56% are in favour of making executives of failed companies ‘pay back their bonuses from the last two years’22.
  • A large majority (80%) think bonuses should ‘reward long-term success rather than short-term performance’23.

[1] (BSA 2013)

[2] (BSA 2013)

[3] (BSA 2013)

[4] (BSA 2013)

[5] (BSA 2013)

[6] (BSA 2013)

[7] (High Pay Centre 2011)

[8] (BSA 2013)

[9] (BSA 2013)

[10] (Rowlingson et al. 2010)

[11] (BSA 2013)

[12] (YouGov 2012)

[13] (TNS BMRM 2013)

[14] (TNS BMRM 2013)

[15] (Prabhakar 2012)

[16] (Prabhakar 2012)

[17] (TNS BMRM 2013)

[18] (Labour List 2013)

[19] (Survation 2013)

[20] (IPPR 2011: 4)

[21] (JRF 2009, Survation 2013)

[22] (JRF 2009)

[23] (JRF 2009)

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