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.