What does the public expect government to be able to solve by 2040?
Our polling reveals insights into perceptions of government challenges and responsibilities
By Ben Szreter, Senior Policy Manager at UK 2040 Options
What do the public perceive as the most formidable challenges for the government to tackle by 2040? Our recent polling in battleground constituencies affords us some insight, looking not only at which issues the public think are most important for the future, but also the long-term challenges they think government is responsible for, and will most struggle to address.
The results of the polling encapsulate not only a snapshot of current societal anxieties and aspirations, but also a forward-looking expectation of the government’s role in society over coming years. It’s a reflection of the collective mindset when it comes to what government is capable of, and should be held responsible for, in the UK.
The easiest and hardest issues to solve by 2040
In our polling of 4,000 people in battleground Westminster constituencies, we asked: “Which of these issues do you think will be easiest and hardest for the government to solve by 2040?”
The issues that those in battleground constituencies believed would be the most difficult for the government to resolve by 2040 were:
Reducing carbon emissions to levels that combat the effects of climate change
Reducing inequality and poverty across society
Managing the numbers of both legal and illegal migration to the UK.
These views were fairly consistent across different ages and genders, with some slight differences such as people over 65 believing managing migration would be harder to solve (33% compared to an average of 22% for people under 65).
On the other end of the spectrum, the issues perceived as easiest to solve by 2040 were:
Ensuring the NHS is fully funded and staffed (note: this was also the fourth highest on the list of the most difficult)
Reducing inflation and the high cost of living
Ensuring energy prices are affordable for ordinary people.
Again, there was a lot of consistency across age and genders, though those under 35 tended to think reducing the cost of living would be easier, compared to older age groups.
In areas where the public view challenges as harder for the government to solve, there may well be more willingness to consider a variety of options for solving the problems.
This could create the space for fostering deeper public engagement and a conversation about the choices we face. By developing a variety of options, we can encourage a collective and considered approach to tackling society’s most pressing challenges. This necessitates a more transparent, flexible approach to problem-solving and policy-making including the need for collaboration between government, businesses, NGOs and individuals in solving these immense challenges.
What is government completely responsible for?
We also explored the views of the public in these battleground constituencies on the UK government’s level of responsibility for issues. A clear majority believe the government is ‘completely responsible’ for three key areas. These are: accountability and trust in government (73%), ensuring the NHS and the education system are fully funded (70% and 61% respectively), and wide-ranging socioeconomic concerns such as managing migration (63%) and reducing inflation (59%).
People (in these battleground constituencies at least) hold the government in Westminster responsible for a wide variety of issues, from public services to energy prices. There seems to be a fairly maximalist view of the role of the state in the UK. If the government is viewed as responsible for many of these things, then developing workable options for dealing with these issues will be viewed as an important part of developing a vision for the country.
It’s worth noting that those who said that they intend to vote Labour held the government more responsible for issues than those who said that they intended to vote Conservative. This was by an average of 10 percentage points per issue and was true for all issues except for managing migration and promoting respect for British values. For these issues, Conservative-intending voters held government more responsible than Labour-intending voters by a small margin.
Complex tapestry of expectations
The charts above illustrate a complex tapestry of expectations and realities, in which some issues are seen as more solvable than others, and the government’s perceived role varies from being the primary actor to part of a wider societal response.
The role of government is multifaceted and complex, with challenges that range from those within its direct control to those that are largely beyond its influence. For example, while it would be unreasonable to expect the UK government to single-handedly resolve the war in Ukraine, it seems more plausible to anticipate the UK government addressing the NHS backlog.
As we look towards the horizon of 2040 in the UK 2040 Options project, these insights offer a roadmap for navigating the complex terrain of public expectations and government responsibilities. They underscore the need for a government that is not only proactive in addressing the issues within its control but also innovative and collaborative when it comes to tackling those that seem insurmountable.
The public perception of the UK government’s capabilities and limitations serves as both a challenge and an opportunity – a challenge for the next government to meet high expectations, and an opportunity to engage the public in an honest dialogue to find solutions to the toughest problems.