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 Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.