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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories