Sunday, 12 June 2011

Scrounging off the poor - Labour and benefit bashing

According to the papers, Ed Miliband is set to make a speech today in which he attacks the 'something for nothing' culture which benefit fraud is a part of. This follows feedback from Labour's policy review that voters are socially conservative and want politicians to go far and wide on welfare reforms.

Subsequently, Ed Miliband looks to have fallen into the 'opinion poll trap': that politicians must pander to public opinion rather than seek to change it in line with their own principles.

Data on public attitudes however show this to be false. Look at the graph below. It show the proportion of respondents from the British Social Attitudes series that believe benefits for the unemployed are either (a) too low or (b) too high. The data show that there was once a time, before 1997, when the UK was a country predominantly sympathetic to those on benefits and believed in giving more financial support.

What is particularly interesting is the timing of this change in attitudes. It happened abruptly in 1998, when the percentage of people stating that unemployment benefit is too high jumped from around 30% to almost 50%. It dropped a little in subsequent years but in the early 2000s became the clear majority view.

In other words then, the emergence of an anti-benefits culture coincided with the election of New Labour who, let's not forget, put conditionality and responsibility at the heart of welfare reforms like the New Deals. New Labour, probably more than what it wished, changed public attitudes in line with its own changing stance on the welfare state.

This evidence shows a truth which seems long forgotten by political parties: that if you want to, you can change society. Ed Miliband does not have to pander to people's prejudices about the benefits system: he should challenge them and change them.


  1. I don't think this is what's going on. I think the fall in support for benefits between the mid/late 90s and the onset of the recession was more a result of two things.

    1) Falling unemployment which meant that fewer people felt that they, personally, or a family member, were likely to have to rely on benefits, and
    2) A perception, right or wrong, that under Labour benefits had become more generous. You get a different answer, interestingly, if you ask about a benefit by name, or if you ask about the actual figure in pounds.

    However I'm afraid "Ed Miliband does not have to pander to people's prejudices about the benefits system: he should challenge them and change them." is wildly optimistic. People don't listen to politicians, and when they listen to them, they don't agree with them, and when they do agree with them, they think they're lying.

    Maybe Joanna Lumley or someone could change people's views about the benefits system. Even then, I doubt it. A party politician certainly can't do any more than tinker around the edges, making themselves unpopular in the process.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    Firstly, I think you're right that attitudes to the unemployed are correlated with the level of unemployment. However, most analysts of attitudinal change accept that the shift in attitudes to the unemployed has gone above and beyond what can be explained by the economic cycle alone. You can see this in how attitudes have continued to harden during and after the recent recession. Unemployment has gone up and people's jobs are more insecure. According to your logic, people should become more sympathetic, but they haven't. I think this shows that there has been a political/cultural transition beyond what can be explained by economics.

    Secondly, I don't think the causal mechanism was 'Labour soft and generous on benefits -> Public hard on benefit claimants'. Labour was hard on benefit claimants, it was a central part of the modernisation process under Blair. I think the process was 'Labour now tough on benefit claimants -> Public harden stance on benefits'. If you break down the BSA data by party political support, you see that the change in attitudes is caused by a change in the views of Labour sympathisers.

    All this solidly validates the theory that Labour's stance on welfare reform led to a hardening of public attitudes. I think you're wrong to say that people don't listen to politicians. It might be subtle, but the way in which politicians frame a debate alters the way the public thinks about it. Politicians aren't that impotent.

  3. Yes, I think by following opinion polls Ed Miliband is showing that he is not a leader. Where are the visionaries able to lead us out of this mess? Certainly Brown and Blair can not be described as leaders or visionaries.

  4. What is needed is creative thinking. It's OK cutting benefits but is Society prepared to take the consequences of social unrest that it will cause?

    Part of this creative thinking needs to examine why so many people are now on benefits. Simply blaming claimants, which appears to be current fashion, will probably not provide a useful basis upon which to find solutions.