Monday, 7 January 2013

How Labour can win the 'welfare war'

I've just read this paper - passed on to me by Duncan O'Leary from Demos (who is doing some interesting work on attitudes to welfare) - about public opinion on the welfare state in the US since the mid-1990s Clinton reforms.

The paper is set up in a remarkably similar way to my own recent publication on attitudes.  Specifically, the authors argue that the Democrats - very much like New Labour did here - adopted some of the language of the Right in terms of welfare to actually try and refashion public attitudes to be more favourable to left-wing arguments.  This is something that seems to have been forgotten in recent years.  The rationale at the time was that in order to make real progress on poverty and inequality, the Left needed to acquire popular support for its favoured policies.  And to do this, it had to recognise public concerns with the welfare state.

The consequences  - as we now know in the UK - have not worked out as the Left planned; with much tougher attitudes towards certain recipients of the welfare state (especially those seen as 'undeserving') and a generally poisonous press climate.  This has made it profoundly tricky - if not electorally impossible - for Labour to defend social security.  Even the party's announcement last week of a Job Guarantee programme for all long-term unemployed people - something you'd think might appeal to all shades of Labour - drew the ire of the party's left for its accompanying emphasis on toughness, sanctions and personal responsibility.

The results from the US are broadly comparable, with welfare reform having no success in producing more favourable attitudes towards social security policies.  Whilst American attitudes have not undergone as deep a transformation as British ones, it is worth remembering that US opinion was already at a much lower base of support than in the UK.

So what are the messages from these very similar stories?  Well, firstly, the experiences in both the UK and the US suggest the opposite from what many commentators seem to accept as a truism: that politicians respond to public opinion.  Rather, the shift in attitudes in both countries strongly implies that what political parties say can have a significant effect on what the public think.  And once Labour realise this, they will be liberated from the destructive game they so often seem to play with the Conservatives on welfare.

The second message is argued by the authors of the US paper.  This is that for policy areas like social security - in which there is little 'proximity' to most people's lives - the 'visibility' of political messages becomes increasingly important.  This means that people pay little attention to policy detail and pay a lot of attention to policy message.  We can see this phenomenon at play in the debate about the benefits cap.  It won't affect the majority of people: so the Coalition frame it as a symbolic policy, about what is fair and what is not.  Labour, alternatively, complain about the sloppy detail of how the policy has been made and voice concerns regarding its consequences.

To win what some are already calling a 'welfare war', Ed Miliband and Labour need to learn two lessons from how public attitudes have shifted in the past decade.  First, that it is in Labour's power to shift the terms of debate.  And second, that in order to do this, it will have to win a war of hearts, not just of heads.

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