New polls show Labour can win the argument on benefits

Fewer than half of voters support Osborne's 1 per cent cap on benefit rises in new poll.

When George Osborne announced in his Autumn Statement that benefits would be uprated by just 1 per cent for the next three years, the move was hailed as a political masterstroke. Polls typically show that between 70 and 80 per cent of the public support the £26,000 cap on benefits and it was widely assumed that voters would back the new policy by a similar margin. By positioning Labour on the side of the 'scroungers' and the Conservatives on the side of the 'strivers', Osborne believed he would aid his party's quest for a majority. But what the Tories forgot (or gave the appearance of forgetting) was that many of those same 'strivers' would be hit by the below-inflation rise. As the Resolution Foundation was quick to highlight, 60 per cent of the real-terms cut falls on working families. When Labour, rather than walking into Osborne's trap, chose to point out as much, the debate began to shift in its favour.

Today's ComRes poll for the Independent shows that 49 per cent support the 1 per cent rise, with 43 per cent opposed. The public, for now, are on Osborne's side but in far smaller numbers than expected. When Labour announced that it would oppose the Welfare Uprating Bill, which is published today, it appeared to many that the party would go down to an honourable defeat. But the message from the ComRes poll is that this is an argument that can be won. A previous poll by Ipsos MORI, which, unlike others, named some of the benefits that would be affected (Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support and Child Benefit), found that 69 per cent believe that benefits should increase in line with inflation or more. Labour will begin 2013 with a new campaign contrasting the coalition's decision to reduce the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p (a move that will benefit the average income-millionaire by £107,500), with its decision to cut support for the working poor. As prices continue to outpace wages, it's a line of attack that should resonate with the public.

You might have noticed another poll on benefits, reported in today's Sun. A Populus survey, commissioned by the Conservatives, found that 63 per cent of people support the 1 per cent rise, with just 25 per cent opposed. But read the questions asked (ConservativeHome has them in full) and it becomes clear why the results should be treated with a large dollop of scepticism. For instance, those polled were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "Benefits have been rising twice as fast as wages since the crisis began so it's fair to cap in-work and out-of-work benefits rises at 1 per cent for a temporary period." That's what pollsters refer to as a leading question, one designed to guide the respondent to the desired answer. It includes a statistic of questionable relevance and invites the reader to agree that the cap is "fair". Imagine a Labour survey that stated, "Those earning a million pounds a year will benefit by £107,500 from the cut in the top rate of tax so it's unfair to cap in-work and out-of-work benefits", and you'll begin to see the arm-twisting involved.

But what all the polling on benefits reveals is just how malleable public opinion is. Based on the question asked, as many as 69 per cent oppose Osborne and as many as 63 per cent support him. As I said before, so long as it makes the right arguments, this is a battle Labour can win.

Chancellor George Osborne is seen during a visit to the offices of HM Revenue & Customs. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.