Uncut poll reveals public blame last Labour government, not Tories, for today’s benefits bill

by Kevin Meagher

In raw political terms, the fact that voters hold Labour accountable by a margin of ten to one for the size of the benefits bill is about as about politically toxic as it gets.

The poll finding, in our forthcoming pamphlet “Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why”, shows the scale of Labour’s real challenge, underneath its broad opinion poll lead.

Over half of those who think welfare spending is too high (54 per cent) blame Labour, with only five per cent pointing the finger at the coalition.

Meanwhile 45 per cent trust Cameron to control welfare spending and prevent it rising out of control, compared to 14 per cent who back Ed Miliband.

This gap goes to the heart of Labour’s credibility as a party of government, so narrowing it must be a strategic priority.

But the problem goes deeper than simply convincing floating voters Labour is tough but fair on social security costs. The entire collectivist model underpinning the welfare state is now on the table.

Our polling shows that 44 per cent of people think the benefits bill is “too high” with only 35 per cent saying it is “about right” or “too low.” So much, then, for people rising up against the government’s benefits changes.

In fact, research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has also found a marked shift from voters accepting ‘societal’ explanations of poverty towards them blaming individuals for their circumstances. Back in 1994, just fifteen per cent of the public thought people lived in need because of laziness or lack of willpower. Nearly a quarter, (23 per cent), think so today.

Let’s be clear: the creation of the benefits system is probably Labour’s greatest achievement. It relies on an altruistic appeal to voters, encouraging them to pay into a system that they themselves draw less out of. Convincing them to carry on doing so should give social democrats sleepless nights.

If we are to future-proof the welfare state against this hardening of attitudes we need to manage costs and transform it into a nurturing state, specifically focused around getting people into paid work and keeping them there for the vast majority of their adult lives.

In doing so, Labour has two problems to grapple with. The first is agreeing what it is fair and reasonable to expect from people in terms of the economic contribution they make versus the entitlements they draw. The second is determining what is needed and legitimate from the state and employers to support those in work.

On the first problem, Labour needs to articulate a new golden rule on welfare. Apart from the disabled and most vulnerable, work is expected. It is the duty of all adults to put their shoulder to the wheel. Work is normal.

At the moment, the public don’t think the party of labour has the workers’ interests at heart. In fact 41 per cent of trade unionists agree that the benefits bill is too high. Labour’s failure to engage on terms familiar to the average voter means the party is forced to overcompensate on other issues. Ed Miliband should have felt able to come out against the government’s unjust and unworkable bedroom tax but has remained wary of doing so for months because it knows voters see the party as a soft touch on welfare overall.

But in doing more to restore the contributory principles of the benefits system and insist on the centrality of work, Labour can widen the issue to look at the obligations that also fall on the state and business.

The government has to get serious about helping meet childcare costs which, for many working families, are simply crippling.

The Daycare Trust and Family and Parenting Institute’s Childcare Costs Survey for 2013, shows nursery, childminder and after-school club costs all rising at twice the rate of inflation, while a nursery place now costs 77 per cent more in real terms than it did in 2003. Quite simply, the government needs to go a lot further in picking up the tab.

Equally, businesses have a responsibility to pay for the skills of their workers, with a third of companies, according to the Commission for Employment and Skills, paying nothing for training. A compulsory training levy would be one way of levelling the paying field for good employers.

Labour is already beginning to make the case for a tougher approach to work and welfare, reflecting the realities of public opinion, but does so intermittently and usually behind a cupped hand.

The risk is that a dangerous gap emerges between Labour’s residual paternalism towards welfare claimants and the altogether harsher centre of gravity of the electorate overall. Saving the noble, collectivist principles of the system depends on Labour stopping this rot in public trust.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut. “Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why” is launched on Monday 23rd September at the PragRad fringe at Labour conference

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16 Responses to “Uncut poll reveals public blame last Labour government, not Tories, for today’s benefits bill”

  1. fred says:

    No mention here of tax credits. Until you realise that employers use them as an excuse for low pay, you haven’t a hope.

    It won’t help to echo the Tory line on benefits because you’ll compound the false impression that out of work benefits are the “wrong” payments to make and that Labour got them wrong.

    The poll quoted here simply displays the public’s misconceptions about benefits; misconceptions that Labour is supposed to have been challenging. Stop panicking and face that real challenge. If not, why not join the Tories?

  2. e says:

    Gosh that sounds like an exciting new agenda! The nation is sure to be bowled over by it. All told, Tory and New labour variety of individual bashing combined, how long has the “tough on welfare” agenda been running for now? The better part of my lifetime….

    How about employer of last resort instead?

  3. swatantra says:

    Neatly siummed up as Labour being always regarded as a soft touch by Welfare Claimants; but the World is a much more harsher and starker, place when you take those rose tinted glasses off, and fairness and deservedness go hand in hand. Why should those not pulling their own weight get away with it? is what the public ask.
    But uppermost in the public’s mind are the recent events of 2008.
    Labour has to be tougher or suffer the consequences.
    What a catastrophe! A complete meltdown!
    ‘Electoral incredulity at Labour rejecting the very cuts it had itself devised… etc’. Heard that one before! It’ll probably take a War to recover, I think, and a reliance on peoples short term memory

  4. Figurewizard says:

    When the total cost public expenditure not only exhausts tax its annual tax revenues but demands huge borrowings in addition (up to £1.3 trillion today and counting) to fund its deficits, something has to be done to eventually correct that. This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with common sense.

  5. David says:

    The old saying that “if it aint broke don’t fix it” is very rarely listened to by politicians as they have this need to be continually making big policy announcements. Look at education, how much change has that area gone through, its quite relentless. Over the years it probably needed gradual improvement out of the spotlight but instead gets wholesale change played out with maximum exposure.

    The trouble with welfare is that IT IS broke and badly needs fixing and Labour are doing themselves no favours with the electorate by being seen as “soft and fair” rather than “tough and fair”

    Welfare should be there to meet the needs of society at the present time and it can’t live in the past. It needs to balance the needs of those who give into the system with those who the system helps. It does not just have to be fair – it has to feel fair as well.

    The welfare bill has risen dramatically over recent years and unless changes are made it will continue to do so. How do you convince people to keep paying into it when they believe the system is broke.

    And the trouble is that many people who would otherwise be natural labour supporters are seeing unfairness in the system and the party is not articulating their concerns.

    Being born and brought up in a council house, I well remember the expectation that you could have a council house for life. It was your home. It does not feel right to me that pressure should be brought on people to vacate their homes before they need to. But that will be the effect of reducing rent allowances if they are felt to have a spare room.

    But that was at a time when you could get a council house to meet your needs.

    When I was born, it took our family up to 5. As a result, after a year of waiting we moved out of our 1 bedroom flat into a larger 2 bedroom flat. Parents slept in a fold down settee in the the living room. And they did so right up until my older brother left home to get married.

    But now, it is practicably impossible to get a move to a larger house, if you can get one in the first place. So whilst I hate the thought that people are having their rent subsidy reduced which may cause them to move house, is it right that we force families to share overcrowded accommodation – when larger accommodation is available that is not being used?

    Or is the answer to leave the spare rooms empty and just pay whatever it takes to provide larger accommodation to the growing family? It seems to me to be fair that if you allow someone to keep a spare room you should also be prepared to give someone else the minimum size of accommodation they need. But who pays?

    I heard someone on the phone the other day talking to Nick Clegg making a very strong case for her spare room – it housed her two spare oxygen bottles which for medical reasons she needs. A family with two older kids of different sexes sharing the same room might feel the bottles could be housed in the hallway or at the end of the bed.

    Or what about the the welfare cap? I know people who travel from the suburbs into town and earn less than £25K. They would love to stay in a more central location but can’t afford it. If someone needs the safety net of the welfare state should they receive more than average earnings? Of course there are some large families who live in certain expensive areas and need greater help. And it is very disrupting for them to relocate to somewhere further out, moving away from families and support networks and schools. But how do you reconcile this with the needs of the £25K a year commuter travelling into town every day? Or the person who loses his/her job and has to relocate to find an alternative job?

    The system has to be seen to be fair.

    There are no easy choices to be made here but there are many natural labour supporters who are split between those who think things can’t go on as they are and some reforms are needed – and those who think the system has to be protected at all costs.

    With a growing population, an ageing population with a longer life expectancy, and a chronic shortage of affordable housing things are not going to get any better. The tories might not be getting things right – but they are articulating the problems and are seen to be trying to do something about it.

    I can see us going into the next election not only not offering any radical alternatives but not even giving any clues as to how we make things better. One nation and being fair to the many not the few will not cut it. At the moment it appears to be we don’t agree with the reforms – but because of the mess the tories have made we can’t afford to reverse them. We don’t agree the tories should have cut taxes but we won’t be raising them. Vote for us we are the not agreeable party.

    Time is running out to get the thinking straight on policies or expect some incredibly tough interviews on the manifesto in the run up to the election.

  6. Dave says:

    This is fascinating in a macabre way.

    If indeed the general public blame the Labour Party for the size of the Benefits Bill and believe it to be too large, it raises a number of points for our consideration:
    1) Is the Bill too large?
    2) Why do the Public think it’s too large?
    3) Why do the Public blame the Labour Party?
    4) What should the Labour Party do about this when it reaches a position on the above three points?

    Here’s my ten cents:
    1) No, no it isn’t. Amounts of money are contextual. When you put the size of the Benefits bill against the military budget and note the size of that in comparison with our needs as a nation of 60 million in alliance with other Western nations, it is clearly not too much. When you identify the reasons behind the Bill, it’s clearly not too much. Now that is not the same as saying we shouldn’t have more people in work. The Benefits Bill is composed of many sections of society including those who cannot work. What? Do they get too much? Perhaps they should be made to work sewing mailbags or doing community service as the much lauded Michael Bichard suggested for pensioners. It’s not too large for what it does. If we want to reduce it, create more jobs through large scale public works programmes, delivering much needed infrastructure to the UK, revitalising communities and properly upskilling people without work currently. But don’t expect to slash it because it is proportional to those who need those benefits.

    2) The Public think it’s too large because the Tory leaning press/ Murdoch/ the Tories and some sections of the Labour Party have told them it’s too big. Surprise! In harder times, people look for simple solutions to heap blame on. Taking on the establishment is hard. Maybe it’s all the immigrants! Or the disabled! Or squatters! Yes, they really caused the Recession, didn’t they? The real problem with all of this is the Labour Party’s lazy years of manipulating the general public by pressing those same easy buttons. Now it’s hard to find a reverse gear to get the vehicle out of the trench isn’t it..?

    3) Why do the Public blame the Labour Party? Well… unfortunately as above, the Party out-Toried the Tories for a few years and are now reaping the whirlwind. In a mad rush to become the 21st Century SDP, the leaders told the Public that you CAN have social justice and equality under a free market system; the Unions ARE irrelevant and we just wish they’d shut up and be grateful etc etc etc. Now, the Tories are saying the same thing (only with some real bile behind it) and we look like bloody idiots. Instead of rushing down the Public-is-bad-Private-is-god (sic) route, we should’ve used our time in power to show how integral the public sector is to a healthy society and valued it. Instead, we dithered in the middle and failed to crush the ‘bankruptcy’ of the Tory’s anti-welfare agenda. BLAHHH!

    4) What does the Party do? Ahhhh… now there’s the rub. There are two choices. The first path is the road well worn since Sir Upwardly Kinnock took a good long urination upon the left of the Party. We can vilify socialism and the left and claim that we are more Tory than the Tories. “The system works! We must just use it wisely. Probity! Prudency! It’s the poor’s fault for not drinking prosecco and speaking properly.” We can give the jobless and the disabled and the vulnerable a kicking and push them indoors out of sight. We can pay lip service to meritocracy and education whilst privatising until we have nothing much left of Labour except what ground the liberals concede. Or…
    Or… we can think forward. We can talk about a new agenda. A new society built on equity. We can think cooperatively and not be ashamed of socialism, but recognise that there’s no room for profiteering in health; in education; in welfare; in essential services and utilities. We can build houses and jobs and invest in new technologies. We can think further ahead than the next election and whether we’ll have all that lovely, lovely power again.

    Can I get a “Well, alriiiiight!”

  7. Dave says:

    Hey, you wanted it ‘Uncut’, Baby!

  8. Chris says:

    Dave says “Instead of rushing down the Public-is-bad-Private-is-god (sic) route, we should’ve used our time in power to show how integral the public sector is to a healthy society and valued it.”

    Hello Dave. Earth calling.

    I think you must have been living in a parallel universe from 1997-2010. The last labour government massively increased the size of the public sector and shovelled unprecedented amounts of money into it, yet did next to nothing to ensure that this colossal expenditure was linked to any sort of meaningful reform.

    Whether this was economic illiteracy or the deliberate use of taxpayers money to set up and fund a client state, we now have the nauseating spectacle of senior suits at the BBC enriching themselves and each other, CEOs of local councils paying themselves £1/4 million a year, the death of final salary pensions in most of the private sector whilst paying for the pensions of the public sector that it cannot afford for itself, an NHS which kills its patients in numbers that would disgrace a 3rd world country, families with multi-generational welfare dependency….. Oh yes, all funded by debt, which we, our children and our grandchildren will be saddled with.

    The reason why the Labour Party is not trusted to run a whelk stall, let alone the 5th largest economy on earth, is because the party’s collective approach is to say ‘nothing to do with us, guv’ thereby proving that it is not trustworthy.

    You didn’t value the public sector? Oh for God’s sake, pull the other one.

    Of course the bloody benefit bill is too high. So is education, defence, health, transport and every single part of public spending. Why? Because in the last 20+ years this country has never, not once, lived within its means for even one year. Not one!

  9. tonyblairisarapist says:

    All commentators in this article need to be put down: if you have addresses and phone numbers for the people above please post them here and they will be given to “welfare claimants” whose lives have been affected by sanctions, atos, benefit cuts and homeless


  10. Madasafish says:

    I see we have a malignant idiot above:
    “tonyblairisarapist says:
    September 14, 2013 at 1:58 am
    All commentators in this article need to be put down: if you have addresses and phone numbers for the people above please post them here and they will be given to “welfare claimants” whose lives have been affected by sanctions, atos, benefit cuts and homeless”

    Part of the reason why people blame Labour is the sheer nastiness and viciousness of many people who oppose Tory policy. Calling Tories “evil” is so OTT as to turn off sensible rational people..


  11. BenM says:

    “I think you must have been living in a parallel universe from 1997-2010. The last labour government massively increased the size of the public sector”

    Not against size of GDP it didn’t.

    Tory myth.

  12. steve says:

    “Labour is already beginning to make the case for a tougher approach to work and welfare, reflecting the realities of public opinion”

    There we have: the sordid and dishonest politics of the Right – valuing public opinion when it chimes with their own priorities, ignoring or even despising public opinion when it doesn’t, as with the proposed war on Syria.

  13. AnneJGP says:

    I expect that people believe the welfare bill is too big because they have heard that we only actually pay some 75% of it, with the other 25% being borrowed.

    It’s one of those ‘living within our means’ ideas which are easily understood & therefore powerful.

    I like the idea of a training levy, if it can be worked out satisfactorily.

  14. Ex-labour says:

    The fundamental flaw in Labours thinking is that we are a collectivist society and social research has shown this not to be true – we have discussed this before on here so I won’t repeat myself.

    I’m also amazed that you seem surprised at your research findings. Pick one of the many opinion polls over recent years and it would have told you the same. Labours rhetoric about boom and bust and fiscal responsibility has come back to bite them, and the public feel let down and hold Labour responsible because they are.

    The benefits budget ballooned under Labour and the working people, you know the ones Labour are supposed to represent, are saying you’ve had your hand in our pocket too long and taken too much, so no thank you.

    Labour essentially told people that the state would look after them and personal responsibility was no longer required. Unfortunately there are those in our society who now live by that creed. The Tories are not nasty, they are trying to get us back into some kind of social and fiscal reality and the Labour strategists should recognise that this is what the public want. The squeezed middle seems to have been dropped and Labour strategy seems to be about appealing to welfare claimants and their supporters.

    God forbid that politicians actually listen to the people that elected them.

  15. Tafia says:

    You have to remember that the public are being hoodwinked by the tories bumping the total number up but passing the blame for it onto groups that aren’t claiming that much. For instance the total figure the tories bandy about includes state pensions, pension tax credits, and housing and council tax benefit to pensioners. Half of the welfare bill is pensioners.

    Then they include housing benefits paid for the working age population. More than half of that is being paid to people in work on low pay.

    Then they also include tax credits – as far as the tories are concerned if you get working tax credit you are a benefit claimant.

    Then they also include child benefit – which is universal and more than 75% the families with children are actually working.

    They also include pesnioner bus passes, free school meals, free school uniforms.

    Did you know that only around 4% of the welfare budget is JSA payments? That more nearly 3 times more in housing benefit is paid to private landlords of people actually in work than JSA accounts for?

    So, if you want to label welfare claimants as scroungers just remeber that nearly half are pensioners, all people with children are included, all recipients of working tax credits are included, housing benefits are included and that more than half of the housing benefits bill is pid for people who are actually in work.

    So how many of you are willing to label all of them as scroungers – because the bill for the real benefit scroungers is actually miniscule.

  16. steve says:

    “So how many of you are willing to label all of them as scroungers – because the bill for the real benefit scroungers is actually miniscule.”

    That’s the reality but it doesn’t quite fit the narrative preferred by the ideological axe-grinders/head-bangers of the Right.

    They’ve mislead the U.K. into war with a false prospectus so there should be no surprise to find they deploy similar deceit when devising domestic policy.

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