The poll that shows Labour can win the argument over benefits

The better educated people are about the benefits system, the less likely they are to support the coalition's reforms.

At first glance, the latest poll on the government's benefit cuts might appear discouraging for opponents of the coalition's approach. YouGov's survey for the TUC found that 48 per cent of people support George Osborne's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years, with 32 per cent opposed. However, their support is based on the false belief that the unemployed will be most affected by the move (64 per cent believed they would be). When informed that the cap will also affect low-paid workers receiving in-work benefits (60 per cent of the cut falls on working families), support for the policy falls to 30 per cent and opposition rises to 40 per cent.

Ahead of next Tuesday's vote on the government's Welfare Uprating Bill, which will enshrine in law Osborne's plan to raise benefits by 1 per cent, rather than in line with inflation (which currently stands at 2.7 per cent), the poll should stiffen the resolve of Labour, which has vowed to oppose the legislation. The clear evidence is that the better educated people are about the benefits system, the less likely they are to support the coalition's reforms. The moral and political duty for Labour is to raise the public's level of understanding. The poll reveals how widespread ignorance about the welfare system is:

  • On average, people think that 41 per cent of welfare spending goes on benefits to the unemployed. The actual figure is three per cent.
  • People believe that 27 per cent of benefits are claimed fraudulently. The goverment's own figure is 0.7 per cent.
  • On average, people think that almost half (48 per cent) of those who claim Jobseeker's Allowance do so for more than a year. The true figure is 27.8 per cent.
  • People guessed that an unemployed couple with two school-aged children would receive £147 a week in Jobseeker’s Allowance. They would actually receive £111.45.

Significantly, the poll found that while 53 per cent of those who gave the least accurate answers believe that benefits are too generous, less than a third (31 per cent) of those who gave the most accurate answers think that they are. As TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady says, it's not surprising that voters generally favour punitive welfare cuts - "They think the system is much more generous than it is in reality, is riddled with fraud and is heavily skewed towards helping the unemployed, who they think are far more likely to stay on the dole than is actually the case."

But as long as Labour continues to emphasise that the main victims of the real-terms cut will be the working poor, while also reminding the public that the majority of the unemployed have worked or will work again soon, there is good reason to believe that it can win the argument.

British musicians Miss Dynamite (5th L) and Charlie Simpson (6th L) join unemployed young people as they stand in line outside a job centre in central London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.