Progressives can win the debate on welfare

It's regularly assumed that progressives can't win the debate on welfare, and must outflank conservative opinion from the right. But looking at polling data more closely, this might not be the case.

A poll out on Monday showing that a majority of the public believe welfare spending should be increased or kept at the current level has surprised many people.

After all, only last year comprehensive polling appeared to show a hardening of public attitudes towards those claiming benefits.

In a YouGov survey for Prospect last January, 74 per cent of those surveyed said they believed the government paid out too much in welfare and that this should be reduced.

And yet Monday’s poll by ComRes has 43 per cent of the public wanting to see more money spent on welfare between now and 2015, with just 27% saying less should be spent.

Just over a quarter (29%) say spending should be kept at the level it is currently.

What’s going on, then, for two such contradictory sets of results to come out in such a relatively short space of time?

The answer perhaps lies in the question itself.

This time around ComRes asked a relatively neutral question: ‘To what extent do you think that the government should increase or decrease spending on each of the following areas between now and 2015?’.

It then lists welfare, the NHS, education, the police, defence, public sector pensions, local government and international aid, with participants told to rate each department out of ten where 10 is ‘increase [spending] a great deal’.

YouGov’s poll for Prospect, however, asked a much more loaded question: ‘The government pays out too much in benefits; welfare levels overall should be reduced?’

Unsurprisingly the results differ substantially.

There are two things for progressives to take heart from here.

Firstly, when the public are asked straightforwardly (i.e. by ComRes rather than YouGov) which departments they think should reduce their spending, welfare comes out ok. Only 27% thought welfare should be decreased in yesterday’s poll, and almost half (43%) thought spending on welfare should actually increase.

Other social areas fared well, too. Over half of the respondents (54%) said more should be spent on education, and 71% thought more should be spent on the NHS between now and 2015.

Even those polls which appear to paint a grim picture can contain grounds for optimism.

Alongside YouGov’s 2012 poll for Prospect last year, Peter Kellner argued that coalition welfare reform was strongly in tune with public opinion.

What both Prospect and Kellner made very little of, however, was the fact that, even with the style of loaded questioning used by YouGov, only 11% of those questioned favoured cuts to the Disability Living Allowance. This despite the coalition aiming to cut Disability Living Allowance expenditure and caseload by 20 per cent

Not quite so in line with coalition policy after all.

Support for cuts in the poll was also confined to just two of the six types of benefit that those surveyed were asked about: unemployed people and unmarried single parents, where 42 per cent and 44 per cent favoured cuts.

It is of course possible than in the past year or so the public have become more sympathetic to welfare recipients for reasons related to self-interest: as the economy has continued to flatline more people fear that soon they too may have to rely on the welfare state, whereas previously this was not a major concern.

Considering unemployment has fallen since last year, however, this does not really suffice as an explanation.

It is commonly assumed in the debate over cuts to welfare that the public are on the government’s side. Yet when the public are asked about benefits – asked with a neutral question that is – the response is often both surprising and encouraging.

This conclusion is not based on only one poll, either. A survey by Ipsos MORI at the end of last year which asked how much benefits should rise found that over half (59%) believed they should increase in line with inflation.

10% said they should rise by more than inflation, while 16 per cent said they should rise by less than inflation. Only 11 per cent said they should not rise at all.

In total, 69% said benefits should increase in line with inflation or more.

Of course, one might easily dig out an alternative piece of polling which shows support for cutting benefits, such as this earlier poll by YouGov, which found that 52 per cent believe Osborne was right to increase benefits by only 1 per cent, while 35 per cent are opposed.

If we look at the methodology, however, we notice again that, unlike MORI, YouGov have not named the specific benefits which would be cut by Osborne, whereas MORI have.

As well as taking on board from this and other polls the knowledge that, if people actually realise what the government are cutting, they are more likely to oppose cuts, the sheer volatility of the results across the board should encourage progressives in the belief that they can win the welfare debate.

Too often we tend to automatically assume that we can’t, and as I hope I have demonstrated, we do so on the back of very little evidence.

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