Following or shaping public opinion? The Labour Party and the welfare state
by Ian Sinclair
7 August 2014
Speaking about the government’s proposed benefit cuts on the BBC Sunday Politics show last month, the interim Labour Party leader Harriet Harman announced “We won’t oppose the Welfare Bill, we won’t oppose the household benefit cap, for example what they brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children”. Why was the main – supposedly left-wing – opposition party refusing to oppose the policies of a hard right Tory Government? Harman explained: “What we’ve got to do is listen to what people around the country said to us and recognise that we didn’t get elected again.”
As it happens 48 Labour MPs defied their party’s three-line whip on the Welfare Bill and opposed the government’s plans to slash benefits from the poorest in society. Of the four Labour leadership hopefuls, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper all followed Harman’s lead and abstained on the proposed bill, while Jeremy Corbyn out right opposed it.
As an aside, Harman’s belief that public opinion sides with the Tories on welfare is arguably misplaced. Writing about the YouGov poll taken two days after Chancellor George Osborne’s budget, Ekklesia’s Bernadette Meaden noted that while a large percentage of people agreed with the general proposition that benefits are “too high”, questions about specific groups highlighted different attitudes. For example, asked about disabled people, 46 percent of respondents felt that too little was spent on them, nine percent felt that too much was spent and 28 percent felt that the amount was about right. Respondents views on what people out of work should receive was evenly split, with no majority saying they get too much. Regarding the cuts in general, 38 percent of those questioned said benefit cuts had gone too far, with just 24 percent saying they had not gone far enough.
However, for arguments sake – and there is plenty of polling evidence to support this conclusion – let’s agree the government’s proposed benefits cuts do have the support of a majority of the people and the public lean to the right when it comes to welfare. Does that mean that all progressives should simply accept this reality and sit back as the Tories decimate the welfare state? It sounds an absurd argument just typing it out but this is exactly what the Labour leadership is arguing.
First, it is important to remember public opinion is not magically created in a vacuum free from social, historical or cultural influence. We have, for example, an often rabid right-leaning national press and poverty porn television programmes like Benefits Streets, How To Get A Council House and, wait for it, Benefits House – Me And My 22 Kids. Cumulatively, all this anti-welfare state propaganda seems to have negatively influenced the public, with a December 2012 YouGov poll finding a huge amount of ignorance when it comes to welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the true figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate it to be 0.7 percent). In addition, on average people thought that an unemployed couple with two school-age children would get £147 in Jobseeker’s Allowance – more than 30 per cent higher than the £111.45 they would actually receive.
Importantly, the poll found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant. “Voters who have a better grasp of how benefits work and what people actually get, oppose the government’s plans. When people learn more about benefits, support moves away from coalition policy”, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said about the survey. This is why it is so important the Labour Party challenge the government’s fact-free narrative on welfare and do not, for example, repeat the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work, as Burnham did during the BBC Sunday Politics leadership hustings.
More broadly, did I miss the meeting when we all agreed the right thing to do in the face of a dangerously uninformed public is to follow it slavishly? Luckily throughout history people have stood up to and challenged popular opinion on issues such as slavery, racism, sexism and gay rights – and through years of hard work eventually changed public opinion for the better. For example, in 1975 Ipsos Mori found just 16 percent of Britons thought gay couples should be able to marry. By 2014 – when gay marriage was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland – support had more than quadrupled to 69 percent. Gay people would still be waiting to get married if they followed Harman’s highly conservative political logic. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Surely politics should be about developing and staking out positions that one thinks will improve society and then attempting to persuade people, using evidence and rational argument, to support that position? And if people are ill-informed about an issue, then we should be educating them, not following their ignorant lead.
Returning to the Labour Party, the central question is this: who among the leadership candidates will challenge the dominant right-wing narrative on welfare and shift the debate into the realms of reality and who will blindly follow public opinion into a pit of ignorance?
Correction: Andy Burnham did not “repeat the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work… during the BBC Sunday Politics leadership hustings.” He failed to challenge the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work on the BBC Newsnight leadership hustings in June 2015.