Attitudes Towards Income Inequality and Redistribution

What Do People Think about Government Action?

Public support for economic redistribution is lower than public concern about economic inequality. However, there is strong public support for the living wage, for certain measures which would reduce tax for those at the bottom, and for specific policies which tackle excessive pay at the top.

The UK public are concerned about inequality and in favour of government action to address it. In 2013, 69% believed that it should be the government’s responsibility to “reduce income differences between the rich and the poor”, the highest number for 14 years[1]. A great majority (78%) think that the gap between those on a high income and those on a low income is ‘too large’ and over half (55%) agreed that ‘For fair society, differences in standard of living should be small’. Both of these views have been stable over the past decade at least​[2].

The British Social Atittudes survey found the following attitudes to government spending on different types of benefits:

Percentage of people who think the government should spend more on different benefit claimants, BSA 2018


  • In 2013, 41% agreed that the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off; considerably fewer than those who thought the income gap is too large (82%)​[3].
  • For the first time since 1995, a significantly higher number of people support rather than oppose government redistribution (41% compared to 30%)​[4].

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%)​[5].
  • 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 1987​[6].

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 1987​[7].
  • 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 level​[8].

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 redistribution​[9]:

  • 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. Most people think the NHS has a major funding problem​[10]. 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 practice​[11].

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% ranking this as their highest or second highest priority for government spending in 2012​[12] and 78% now think that it is the government’s responsiblity to ensure children of all economic backgrounds have the same chances in life​[13].
  • Welfare – The latest collection of BSA saw an increase in the number of people who think decreasng welfare would be damaging​[14].


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

  • In 2012, 83% of the public supported an increase of the personal tax allowance £10,000 before it was introduced by the coalition​[15].
  • Overall, between 1990 and 2013, there has been a decrease in the proportion of people who believe that ‘the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor even if it leads to higher taxes’. Nevertheless, this commanded the support of almost 40% of people in 2013​[16].
  • 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)​[17] and focus groups have indicated support for a consumption based system of tax despite its impact on the poorest.
  • Focus group research found the tax people most mind paying is inheritance tax despite it mostly falling on those higher up the income spectrum​[18].
  • 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​[19].

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​[20].

Ipsos MORI


The government has a key role to play in the prevalence of poverty in society. As of 2018, 17% are in relatively low income before housing costs and 22% are after housing costs. The corresponding figures for individuals in absolute low income are 15% and 19%. For children, these rate are slightly higher​[21].

The perception of poverty has changed in recent years, with higher numbers of people thinking there is ‘quite a lot’ of poverty in the UK, with Labour supporters supporting this view more than Conservative ones, and 62% thinking that poverty has increased in the last ten years (almost double the proportion surveyed in 2006)​[22]. The reality, however, is that rates of poverty have been fairly similar in the last ten years, with some estimates actually being slightly lower than they were ten years ago​[23].

BSA, 2019

Living Wage and Low Pay

Survey research shows strong public support for the living wage:

  • 71% support a national wage increase​[24].
  • Over three-quarters (77%) feel that employers should pay a wage that covers the basic cost of living​[25]
  • Three quarters of working people (74%) say that they would be more likely to buy products or services from a company that pays its workforce the Living Wage rather than the Minimum Wage​[26].
  • Worries about job security are more common in the lowest income group, with 37% expressing some degree of concern, compared to 22% of those in the highest income group showing a similar worry​[27].

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 paid.
  • 56% are in favour of making executives of failed companies ‘pay back their bonuses from the last two years’.
  • A large majority (80%) think bonuses should ‘reward long-term success rather than short-term performance’​[28].
  • A majority also think that ‘large differences in income [are] acceptable to reward talents and efforts’ but support for this view has decreased, from 64% in 2006 to 53% ten years on. 19% in 2006 and 26% in 2016 disagree with this view​[29].

[1] (BSA 2013)

[2] (BSA 2019)

[3] (BSA 2013)

[4] (BSA 2013)

[5] (BSA 2013)

[6] (BSA 2013)

[7] (BSA 2013)

[8] (High Pay Centre 2011)

[9] (BSA 2013)

[10] (BSA 2018)

[11] (BSA 2013)

[12] (BSA 2013)

[13] (Elitist Britain 2019. Social Mobility Commission, 2019)

[14] (BSA 2018)

[15] (YouGov 2012)

[16] (BSA 2013)

[17] (TNS BMRM 2013)

[18] (Prabhakar 2012)

[19] (IPPR 2011: 4)

[20] (Unfair and Unclear. Power and Stacey, 2014)

[21] (Poverty in the UK: statistics. House of Commons, 2019)

[22] (BSA 2019)

[23] (Poverty in the UK: statistics. House of Commons, 2019)

[24] (BSA 2018)

[25] (BSA 2018)

[26] (Survation 2013)

[27] (BSA 2018)

[28] (JRF 2009)

[29] (BSA 2019)