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Can we rely on public opinion to guide us to a better future?

From inflation to immigration: public concerns and beyond

By Ben Szreter, Senior Policy Manager at UK 2040 Options

What issue does the government most urgently need to address? It’s a question that has no correct answer – but one that’s been put to the public again and again over the years.

Public concern has evolved over the decades, shifting from unemployment to public services to the economy to the EU. In this blog, we map these changing priorities and explore their implications for what the government should focus on.

The aim of UK 2040 Options is to bring fresh angles and insights about how we shape the the UK’s future by exploring the choices that the country faces over the next two decades. And the first question to ask is: what should the government prioritise?


Public perception is a dynamic landscape

Over the past four decades, the public’s perception of what the most important issues are has changed significantly. The chart below shows data from the monthly Ipsos Issues Index for the 12 months preceding each election since 1974 (see notes on the methodology below).

For elections in the 1970s, inflation gripped the nation’s attention, followed by unemployment in the 1980s and public services – in the form of education and healthcare – in the 1990s and early 2000s. More recently, economic issues, immigration and the EU have taken the spotlight. As we can see, these public concerns are not fixed: some fade away, as unemployment seems to have done, while others resurface – sometimes due to external factors and sometimes as a direct result of political strategies.


So what are the most important issues in the public mind right now? The chart below shows the most important issues for the public in the 12 months to May 2023.

It’s evident that the public’s concerns change over time and that they are both influenced by and influence the political choices of the day. But what do levels of public concern about these issues have to do with governmental priorities?


The other factors involved in governing effectively

While public opinion plays a significant role in shaping policy decisions, it is, of course, not the sole factor to consider. There are many more issues to consider beyond immediate public concerns. At a recent UK 2040 Options event, project sponsor Lord Gus O’Donnell argued that an effective government would prioritise issues of deep importance such as climate change regardless of how highly rated it is at any point in time as an issue of concern by the public.

A part of the conclusion of the Options for a New Britain work of 2009 (a precursor to our current UK 2040 Options project) was that there are various categories of government priority that go beyond those in the public consciousness but that must be addressed in order to effectively improve lives. As well as the issues focused on by the public, there will be a mix of political projects (think reducing inequality or reducing the size of the state), external imperatives such as climate change or geopolitical factors and more administrative concerns that must be addressed for effective delivery, such as public sector performance or devolution. Of course, there will be overlap between these categories too.

Public opinion will clearly be one of the major factors determining the debate we have about policy choices over the next year – but it won’t be the only one.

Our charts above offer an insight into the landscape of public concerns now and before elections over the last 50 years. As part of the UK 2040 Options project, we will be studying public concern, but also considering the intricate web of other challenges the next Government will need to consider in order to deliver effective government for the people of the UK. We can then aim to provide an assessment of the major decisions that the next government must consider and the options they could pursue in order to improve people’s lives.



Notes on the Ipsos Issues Index

  • The Ipsos monthly issues index asks: “What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?” and “What do you see as other important issues facing Britain today?”
  • The responses are unprompted and the data used in the graph is the percentage of respondents specifying the relevant issue across either of the two questions. This means that the total percentage of all issues is above 100% as individuals can choose multiple issues.
  • The monthly sample size is around 1,000 every month and includes England, Scotland and Wales.