Why a resurgence in support for the welfare state won’t help Labour
Sep 14th 2013 |From the print edition
MANY reasons can be found why public support for Britain’s welfare system should be waning. The economy remains debt-ridden, the deficit large. Five more years of austerity will drain funding from services Britons cherish, like schools and the NHS. It explains why politicians talk of “strivers”, aiming to tap into a perceived view that those receiving benefits have it easy.
But new data suggest that politicians may have misjudged the public mood. The latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, published on September 10th, revealed that sympathy for those on benefits, on a downwards trend since 1989, has started to rise. Those agreeing that benefits should “provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed” rose from 50% to 59% in the period between 2006 and 2012.
Those who thought benefits were “too high and discourage work” fell from 62% in 2011 to 51%, and more people thought cutting benefits “would damage too many people’s lives.” Alison Park, of the BSA team, says sympathy for benefits claimants often rises in recessions, but in this downturn the effect had not clearly appeared until this year’s data.
Britons disagree on who should get cash, however. A report published by Demos, a think-tank, and Ipsos MORI, a pollster, showed that more than four-fifths of those born before 1965 would prioritise pensions over other benefits. Yet less than half of those born after 1980 would do so (see chart). Britons born before 1945 are less likely to support benefits for working-age groups than the average. Generations favour their own.
With more cuts expected after the next general election, which part of the welfare budget to spare divides Britain’s political parties. The Conservatives have promised to exclude pensions from any spending cap. With their own pots safe, the BSA data suggests grey-haired voters might welcome other cuts. Only 10% of the pre-war generation regard unemployment benefit as a priority. Single parent handouts are especially unpopular with older Britons: only 3% support them.
Labour’s brand of austerity should appeal more to the young. They propose to cap pensions, and oppose further cuts to child and housing benefits. It may prove a risky strategy: 76% of over 65s turned out to vote at the last election, whereas only 44% of those aged 18-24 bothered to do so. Labour’s poll lead is already dwindling, rising support for welfare may well quicken the pace.