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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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