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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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