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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.