I had a cracking cold at the weekend so didn’t post on the YouGov/Sunday Times poll, hence there are a couple of interesting findings in there that really got overlooked. Most interestingly on the so-called “bedroom tax”. As the government gets a thorough kicking on the subject, it would be easy to imagine that the majority of people are up in arms against it. Actually, people supported the idea by it by 49% to 38%.

As one might imagine from a policy that has been a political football for the last few months, answers have aligned along party partisan grounds – three-quarters of Tory voters said they supported the policy and a majority of Labour voters say they oppose it… but a substantial minority of Labour voters (34%) say they support the policy.

Why? Regardless of whether or not is actually is a good policy or not (which is outside the remit of this blog) parts of the media have spent the last two months happily banging on about the evils of the bedroom tax and how it will affect the disabled, or children, or foster families or whatever… yet people say they support it. There are two obvious reasons, not by any means mutually exclusive. One, people really don’t pay much attention to any of the media coverage of the changes and are unaware of what impacts it might have. Two, that they are aware, but support it anyway – either people they think it is more important to cut spending and hard choices must be made, that downsides are exaggerated, that the basic principle outweighs the negative effects to some people or just, when push comes to shove, many people generally support cuts in benefits.

The same poll asked people to pick areas they think SHOULD be prioritised for cuts, and which areas people thought should be PROTECTED from cuts. The top answers to both questions were as you’d expect and saw little crossover between wanting cuts and wanting protection. So, a large majority of people want NHS spending protected with hardly anyone wanting it prioritised for cuts, over half of people wanted education protected with hardly anyone wanting it prioritised for cuts, the picture is similar for crime and pensions. On the other side a large majority thought overseas aid should be prioritised for cuts with hardly anyone wanting it protected.

Welfare benefits are more interesting. 39% of people think that welfare benefits should be prioritised for cuts, including 62% of Tory voters. For a lot of people this is an area where they positively want to see cutbacks. However, unlike overseas aid where the traffic is overwhelmingly one way, there is also a substantial body of people – 16% – who think welfare benefits are one of the area that most require protection from cuts. Benefits are, therefore, an area where there really are totally contrasting views out there amongst different parts of the electorate.

Polling does tend to show that the balance of the opinions is hostile towards welfare benefits. For example, about a year ago Peter Kellner did some polling for Prospect looking at attitudes towards the principles of welfare benefits. Overall 74% agreed that the government paid too much in benefits, and that welfare levels should be decreased. A different YouGov poll carried out for the TUC at the end of last year found 42% of people thought benefits were too generous, compared to 28% who thought they were about right and 18% not high enough. 59% thought that Britain had a culture of benefit dependency that needed radical change, as opposed to 29% who thought that welfare benefits were far from generous and the least a civilized society could do to help people avoid abject poverty.

However look below the surface and it isn’t a blanket opposition to welfare – it is hostile towards welfare for particular groups, supportive of particular cuts. So the YouGov/Prospect poll found people were happy to see support for disabled people and for the elderly to rise (even if it meant higher taxes), the areas where they think welfare is too generous and should fall are those Daily Mail favourites “single parents” and the unemployed. People are more evenly divided over support for low-paid people in work, with marginally more people thinking support should be cut than think it should rise. There is a similar picture when it comes to specific government policies – polls do show strong support for things like the benefit cap, for stopping benefits for those who refuse working, support for limiting benefit increases to 1% (although there appears to be an online/offline mode effect here – online polls show people more supportive than telephone polls)… but opposition to policies like stopping housing benefit for under 25s.

The reason that people tend to be supportive of benefits cuts in general is likely to be related to the fact that they perceive an awful lot of benefits as going to those groups they don’t want to pay for, or indeed for outright fraud. For example, the YouGov polling for the TUC found that on average people thought that 41% of benefit spending went to the unemployed and that just over a quarter of it was claimed fraudulently. The YouGov/Prospect poll found that 29% of people thought that half or more of benefit claimants were lying or deliberately refusing to take work, and a further 39% thought a significant majority were. The general perception is also that benefits are more generous than they are – on average, people think that Jobseekers Allowance is £147 a week (it’s actually £71 a week).

This is not to say that attitudes to benefits are unusual in someway in being based upon a poor understanding of the issues. I expect this is typical and we’d find it in almost any policy subject we cared to ask about. Most people don’t waste much of their time worrying about the details of how the country is run, what the government spends, how policies work and so on. Our views of policies are based not on a detailled understanding of the issues, but on crude impressions and heuristics. In terms of welfare benefits, those crude impressions are, for many people, that a large amount of benefits go to the workshy or the dishonest and therefore it is a good place to save money, rather than on public services like hospitals and schools.

I should finish by taking it right the way to electoral politics. As in most cases, the important thing won’t be whether people actually support individual policies, it is how they feed into wider, longer term perceptions of the parties. For the Conservatives many of the policies are popular in themselves, but they need to avoid them playing into and entrenching perceptions that the party are heartless or nasty or uncaring towards those struggling (it’s not necessarily impossible – remember that the low income person seeing their own tax credits frozen may also be someone who believes that benefit claimants are mostly scroungers and layabouts who deserve their benefits cut – people don’t fit into nice neatly defined boxes of us and them). Labour meanwhile will want to oppose many cuts without allowing the Conservatives to paint them as a party that cares more about benefit recipients than they do taxpayers funding them – in short, despite the ridiculousness of the rhetoric, whether they are on the side of skivers or strivers.

127 Responses to “On “bedroom taxes” and benefits”

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  1. Colin

    And the BoE has only just woken up to this, folk on both the left and right have been talking about this problem since the phenomenon really started going in the 80s but the orthodoxy has always said that there is no problem, its just capitalism at work and by its very nature it must be efficient. Lol

  2. Colin

    Anyhow not to worry, when carney takes over the BoE will start monetizing those debts as part of the new more imaginative QE

  3. I’m the same, Neil. The Catholic church, for me, is hardly a shining beacon of social (and economic) justice whilst it retains such vast wealth itself. It kind of reminds of a mega rich person moralising on the virtues of socialism whilst hoarding all their wealth.

    Having said that, despite not being Catholic – or at all religious for that matter – I, oddly, feel a bit sympathetic towards the Catholic church. Despite all the scandals and injustices, I do feel that it is grossly unfair to concentrate solely on the negatives of the Catholic church (and Christian church more widely) when, quite frankly, there are many other religions in this country (and worldwide)which are just as guilty of bigotry (and other wrongdoing) as the Catholic church. I can only assume that, in these days of political correctness, people sense that Catholics are much more open to public ridicule and public debate than other faiths and religions. I guess it’s this cowardice and lack of openness to meaningful debate on religion in the 21st century that I abhor.

  4. @ R HUCKLE

    I too have been giving some thought to how parties might skew their appeal to those who are most likely to vote AND in Labour’s case where their support is weakest. Amongst men between 40 and 65 Labour has not made as much headway as amongst other groups. If Labour did some number crunching and offered to delay the increase in retirement age from 65 to 66 for those currently over 40 they could make a massive dent in Conservative support amongst the older men approaching retirement who are virtually to-a-man in my experience very resentful at the goalpost being moved away from them so close to longed-for retirement. If it meant taxing richer pensioners (who wouldn’t shift to Labour in a month of Sunday’s anyway!) to pay for it, it could be a win, win for Labour. Would this be a feasible VI mover?

  5. @Neil A

    “Unless Francis I melts down some of the gold that drips all over the Vatican and donates it to the poor, then I’m afraid I won’t be at all convinced by his social justice credentials.”

    You’re right to suspend judgement and although I’m loathe to be too critical of Pope Francis 1 so early into his papacy, his behaviour during the long years of right wing military dictatorship in Argentina is not encouraging, nor does it suggest a man with deeply held socially liberal views.

    This from a Daily Mail article today: –

    “The Pope has been accused of failing to stand up to the brutal military junta that slaughtered tens of thousands of Argentines in its so-called Dirty War.
    Critics say Jorge Mario Bergoglio did little to help those who disappeared when the country was under right-wing military rule – and too much to criticise the left-wing opponents of the generals.
    He has even been accused of turning a blind eye to the rounding up and torturing of his own Jesuit priests, something he strongly denies.”

    All the normal Daily Mail and press speculation caveats apply, but some leading human rights lawyers are not being terribly complimentary about the “leadership” he offered during those benighted days when Argentina lived under a succession of murderous military juntas. I wonder what he might have done had an Argentinian equivalent of Hugo Chavez emerged? On this evidence, probably not very much I would imagine.

  6. Neil A,

    Rightly or wrongly the church has always viewed it’s accumulated wealth as it’s pension fund, living within it’s means off the interest ,rather than spending the capital and leaving itself unable to meet it’s needs in the future.

    I suppose one mans dripping gold is another financial prudence.

    You take your pick I suppose, but I for one am not that sure that selling the churches assets would end world poverty so that would never need it in the future.

    Actually I suppose it’s quite apt that you raise the point here as this thread started with a discussion of peoples perceptions as opposed to reality.

    I don’t know the figures but I suspect that the wealth of the Catholic church wouldn’t make much of a dent in ending poverty in the third world.


  7. RiN

    THe point of the BoE warning was to highlight the spike in highly leveraged buyouts in the mid 2000s, and the 7 year average maturity of the peak debt issuance-which occurred in 2007.

    ie 2014 is a peak year for refinancing.

  8. “Rightly or wrongly the church has always viewed it’s accumulated wealth as it’s pension fund,….”

    You are probably correct, but it still makes me smile. They tell us to trust the lord, but the idea of selling up and hoping that god will come up with something doesn’t seem to cut it for themselves.

    I also find it amusing that within 24 hours of the announcement of a new pope, we also have the announcement of a significant step forward in confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson. The juxtaposition of evidence based questioning and searching for the truth against a doctrinally governed faith based approach, conducted by a bunch of men in dresses who are frightened of gays and women, did rather bring a smile to my face.

    Having said that, I wish the new pope well and hope he does manage to change the catholic church for the better. Whether I like it or not, he does have great influence, and the huge death toll caused by church teachings on things like aids, their ignorant approach to issues of sexuality in places like Africa, and their inability to protect their own followers from abuse really does put them in the basement of human endeavor as an organisation, despite the fact that there are undoubtedly millions of good and decent catholics out there, trying to make the world a better place and crying out for better leadership.

    I hope good things will come of this, but I’m less convinced than some of the lazy media commentators. Much is being made of the Francis of Assissi connection, but a prominent British Jesuit on R4 this morning said that it’s far more likely that the real meaning of the name is Francis Xavier, who I understand founded the Jesuits and is venerated by catholic evangelists.

    It seems the world is cursed to have another doctrinally conservative pope, with all the suffering that that could entail.

  9. IMO, Pope Francis has come along at the right time. I agree with what Jon Snow has to say about him.


  10. I think the record of the Catholic Church in the conquest & subjugation of indigenous cultures in S. America is appalling.

    I am very much opposed to aggressive proselytising , and religious power play which seems to be a feature of the Catholic Church’s presence so many third world countries.

    Whatever Francis’ nature & papacy turns out to be-I doubt it will include releasing millions of poor & undereducated people from the iron grip of his Church’s demands on their lives & souls.

  11. The first thing Francis has to do, presumably, is to read the 300 pages of the “Vatileaks” report, which , by some reports, sent Ratzinger scurrying into retirement.

    The second thing is to do something about it , and provide his global priesthood with some semblance of moral authority , after they so abandoned it so willfully & covertly.

  12. @Peter,

    My references to dripping gold were rather more literal than that. As a more-or-less lapsed Protestant I found that when I visited Italy the gaudy trappings of the Catholic churches seemed almost unholy to me.

    The only church that didn’t was (perhaps ironically) St.Francis in Assissi, which was painted with abstract designs in pastel colours inside, with very little gilding or ornamentation.

    I suppose I have never understood how any Christian of any stripe can consider the investment of resources in, for example, a solid gold chalice in any way authorised by any passage in the Bible.

    And by that I don’t mean that I don’t understand how it happened (centuries of the Church being a major stakeholder in the material and political world, dominated by leaders who were nobles and politicians first and believers a distant third). I mean I don’t understand how they could ever argue it was justified.

  13. @Neil A,

    “And by that I don’t mean that I don’t understand how it happened (centuries of the Church being a major stakeholder in the material and political world, dominated by leaders who were nobles and politicians first and believers a distant third). I mean I don’t understand how they could ever argue it was justified.”

    I agree. They can’t. I guess it’s a case of power, greed and politics triumphing over religion and holiness.

    I also found the whole pomp surrounding the occasion rather uncomfortable.

  14. I am hopeful that John Snow’s assessment of the new Pope is the correct one. An answer to the Daily Mail’s accusations can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/13/pope-francis-kidnapping_n_2870251.html. His biographer repeats Francis’ account of working under cover to rescue opponents of the dictator. Whatever his failings, I do not see him as a deliberate and elaborate liar, which he must be if these stories of courage and ingenuity are untrue.

    As to which Francis his choice of name honours, perhaps both Francis of Assissi and Francis Xavier. But the phrase with which he first addressed his followers yesterday evening, “Fratelli, sorelli” (“Brothers, sisters” extraordinarily translated by Yahoo News as “Gentlemen, ladies”), is typical of Francis of Assissi.

    I am hoping he is tough enough to withstand the double attack which he will no doubt face from both the church establishment and non-believers. And that he will not waste on them the time and strength which would be better employed fighting for the poor.

  15. I take on board recent comments about how leadership speculation surrounding Cameron is nonsense, or that Tory realists recognise him to be their biggest electoral asset – but there are consequences for taking the holding pattern approach, not least that any erratic or risky strategy adopted by the PM is now being reported in the context of a lack of authority within cabinet and party.

    Second order reporting of the FT piece mentioned by Laszlo yeterday (“Martin Wolf Demolishes David Cameron”) raises the prospect of a steady trickle-down loss of credibility.

  16. COLIN
    “In my experience there is only one place to look for “mega rich persons moralising on the virtues of socialism whilst hoarding all their wealth.”.”

    You surely don’t mean the Yougov UKPR website?


    Conspicuous wealth ?-a few hints perhaps-Norway-that sort of area.

    Socialism?-Dunno-depends what you mean I suppose. Is there a consensus view here?

  18. NEIL A
    ‘I suppose I have never understood how any Christian of any stripe can consider the investment of resources in, for example, a solid gold chalice in any way authorised by any passage in the Bible.’

    Whilst I understand the general sentiment, having chalices and patens of gold or silver is, strangely enough, about the easiest to justify.

    Putting to one side the supposed antibacterial properties of silver (important if sharing the chalice), the chalice and paten (plate for the bread/wafers) are, in RC theology, holding the real body and blood of Christ. If Christ could commend Mary for anointing his feet with expensive oil, and rebuke Judas for suggesting that the money could have been spent on the poor, then it makes sense to provide the best for Christ present in the Eucharist.

    You may not agree with the theology, but it does make sense. Gold and silver anywhere else – much less so. And I note Pope Francis has refused a heavy gold cross for his existing plain one.

  19. COLIN
    Nah. You’re right. I’d forgotten, Mrs T did away with it all those years ago.
    So it’s Chelsky FC?

  20. @Neil, A
    “I suppose I have never understood how any Christian of any stripe can consider the investment of resources in, for example, a solid gold chalice in any way authorised by any passage in the Bible.”

    I don’t know why I feel I have to defend this as I am an ex-Catholic. The chalice holds the body and blood of Christ (as believed by Catholics) and presumably believers would want the most precious container to hold this.

  21. Neil A

    Bloody puritains with their drab churches

  22. @ Neil A

    I am not a Roman Catholic, but a lapsed Christian with a father who was a High Anglican clergyman. I once railed at my father about the church and all its trappings of dripping gold whilst there was poverty aplenty. His answer was that most of the churches wealth (well the CofEs anyway) was tied up in valuable antiques which adorned the churches whose sale would raise far less than their cultural value (I guess the same is probably true of RC churches that so offend you with their golden gaudiness?).

    However, my father argued that to melt down often Medieval or Renaissance gold artifacts would be an act of barbaric iconoclasm, equivalent to the destruction of ancient wall carvings by Islamists!

    I realized as an historian myself that on that score he was right.

    Are you suggesting Neil that what are almost archaeological items that happen to adorn churches in a way that is not to your taste should be destroyed in order to give a few pence each to the poor?

  23. Hehe I know I said “melting down” but I was speaking figuratively really.

    Sold to the highest bidder would be just fine. I’m sure such antiquities must be worth a lot to the right buyer.

    But in a sense, the fact that they are antique rather reinforces the point. The church has been putting it’s resources into material goods for two thousand years, whilst disease, discord and starvation raged all around it.

  24. Neil A

    I hope your not suggesting removing any statues, I like to light a candle in front of the mother mary in memory of my grandmother. I would be devastated if they were removed

  25. @Neil A

    You are forgetting almshouses, hospitals etc managed by religious institutions, sometimes for centuries, in accordance with the wishes of a wealthy benefactor. Chalices and artifacts were also high status donations, but of lesser value.

  26. The sheep will never be given the chance to vote for cuts to bankers and warlords. It just won’t happen. So a substitute is found; poor people. They will always, always vote for the most vulnerable people to be targeted with vicious cuts. After all, they can’t fight back so it’s a win!

  27. NEIL A
    Don’t forget cathedrals and chapels, which cost a pretty penny. Hold on, though, they then became the foundation of colleges,including King;s which then went on to produce Meynard Keynes, who taught several generations to produce wealth and jobs and combat poverty, and Edmund Leach who taught how these artifacts and exchange systems provide the structures around which social class and prestige systems generate wealth creations and distribution, which lead to rich men and royaly and the churches to….. golly, where will it all stop?

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