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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

The Knowledge: Benefits

Unemployment seems a rare issue where the cultural winds favour the blues, says Mark Gettleson






WORDS: MARK GETTLESON



Of all the changes made by our legislatively frantic Government, perhaps the most controversial and long-lasting will turn out to be its benefit reforms. From sweeping changes like the overall benefits cap and housing benefit limit, to more specific reductions in child benefit for wealthier families and a more stringent test for incapacity benefit, these reforms have the capacity to bring about profound change.

In an age of austerity, the arguments given for these changes are rooted in the public finances – but few on either side of the debate deny that a considerable amount of politics is at work. This is especially true as the changes relate to unemployment.

To the Owen Joneses of this world, the welfare cap package is part of a sinister scheme to shift the blame for the recession, in the eyes of the working poor, away from the wealthy individuals who run our financial institutions towards those out of work.

The logic is probably simpler than that and part of a longer-term trend: in hunting for a message that appeals to the C2 voters, Ed Miliband's 'squeezed middle', whose support any party needs to win an election, the Conservatives have stumbled upon welfare as a policy area where their core principles have crept up in popularity. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, between 2001 and 2011, the proportion of the public saying that the state should take primary responsibility for those out of work fell from 88% to 59%.

The reasons for this are no doubt complex. In the short-term, the recession plays a part: people struggling to make ends meet are less willing to give up their money to support those who aren’t working. But for many, there must also be longer-term changes at work: over the decades, an ever less predictable economy has changed work from something often provided for individuals to something they have to reach out and grab. A cultural shift in responsibility from the state to individuals no doubt plays into the hands of Conservatives.

In fact, a majority of the public would go even further. In 2011, 62% believed that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work, up from just 36% in 2000. In the run-up to Christmas, backbench Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke proposed that unemployment benefit payments should come in the form of a cash card that could only be spend on essentials, similar to the US food stamp system. Though exceptionally controversial, the idea found strong public support – an overlooked YouGov poll found 57% in favour and just 34% against. Even Labour supporters were only opposed 44% to 48%.

The Conservative strategy of forcing Labour to vote again and again on benefit issues may seem crude, but unemployment seems a rare issue where the cultural winds favour the blues.