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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.