By: Peter Kellner
Writing for YouGov-Cambridge
For much of the 20th century, the most fundamental dispute in western politics was whether we should be socialist or capitalist societies. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the dispute came to an end. Capitalism won.
Now a new set of arguments is raging: what kind of capitalism should we have? Ed Miliband has attacked 'predatory capitalism' while Conservatives such as David Davis and Jesse Norman assault "crony capitalism'. On all sides the quest is for policies that will encourage good, responsible, productive capitalism.
How do voters, business leaders and other influential groups view this debate? YouGov-Cambridge posed three questions to the general public (sample: 1,729) and to a panel of influential people, including 311 business leaders and 344 politicians, senior civil servants and media executives. We also polled 544 American electors.
The questions concerned the general principle of regulation, the way companies decide how to pay their employees, and the way bonuses are allocated. In each case we offered broadly the same three options: that companies should exercise the freedom to do whatever they think is right, within the law, to grow their business; that companies should voluntarily curb their behaviour by taking account of such wider social considerations such as fairness and the environment; that parliament should impose tougher regulations so that companies are forced to take wider social considerations into account.
As the tables show, in Britain, business leaders tend to favour maximum freedom, while the public and political/media worlds tend to favour stricter regulation.
That is not surprising. Perhaps the significant thing is the lack of unanimity in any of the groups on any of the issues.
One in three voters, and political/media insiders, wants companies to enjoy as much freedom as possible, while most business leaders favour some restrictions on bonuses, whether voluntary (35%) or through regulation (23%).
These figures suggest a debate that has still some way to run in this country.
No clear consensus has emerged in any of the groups. The only proposition that secures majority approval is that bonuses should be regulated more toughly, and this applies specifically to the general public - and in any case only just passes the 50% mark.
Within the electorate, there are predictable differences:
Conservative voters tend to be more sympathetic to companies having maximum freedom, while Labour and Liberal democrat voters are keener on tougher regulation. (In passing, it's worth noting that Lib Dem voters are far closer to Labour voters than to Conservatives on these issues.)
But, again, with the exception of the 63% of Labour voters and 58% of Lib Dems who favour tougher formal rules on bonuses, views among supporters of the different parties fall short of a clear consensus.
In the United States, voters are far more likely to support freedom for companies, whether in their general conduct, setting pay or determining bonuses. And unlike Britain, there are massive differences by party allegiance. For example, 70% of Republicans think companies should generally do whatever is best for their business, as long as they act within the law - while only 14% of Democrats share this view
One message from these figures is that there could be huge dividends for any British party, or politician, that manages to shape and then articulate the public mood - and to devise policies that really work: that actually result in a better capitalism, rather than have a populist ring to them but end up impeding innovation, investment and job-creation. The opportunities to shape public attitudes seem far fewer in America, where the debate is far more polarised between supporters of the two main parties.
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