Sixty nine per cent oppose Osborne's benefit cuts, new poll shows

Unlike the Chancellor, the majority of voters believe that benefits should rise in line with inflation or more.

One of the assumptions commonly made in the current debate over welfare is that the public are on the government's side. George Osborne's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years is viewed as a vote winner for the Tories, with Labour's opposition to it viewed as a vote loser. But a new poll by Ipsos MORI suggests this may not be the case. Asked how much benefits should rise by, 59 per cent said they should increase in line with inflation, 10 per cent said they should rise by more than inflation, 16 per cent should they should rise by less than inflation (the government's policy) and just 11 per cent said they should not rise at all (an option considered by Osborne but vetoed by the Lib Dems). Thus, in total, 69 per cent believe that benefits should increase in line with inflation or more.

The poll contrasts with an earlier survey by YouGov, which found that 52 per cent believe Osborne was right to increase benefits by 1 per cent, with 35 per cent opposed. What explains the discrepancy? One difference is that MORI's question, unlike YouGov's, named specific benefits - Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support and Child Benefit - that would be affected by the policy, something that is likely to have increased opposition to it.

Ahead of next month's vote on the Welfare Uprating Bill, the discovery that voters do not inevitably side with Osborne should have the effect of stiffening Labour's resolve. Provided that it continues to make the case against the bill in reasoned terms, not least by pointing out that more than 60 per cent of those families affected are in work, the argument can be won. Indeed, MORI's poll suggests that it may have been won already.

Chancellor George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street on December 12, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.