The public don't support further welfare cuts

A new poll shows that 72 per cent of voters want welfare spending to be increased or frozen.

George Osborne has long assumed that you can't cut welfare spending too hard. The Chancellor reduced benefits by £18bn in the 2010 Spending Review and by another £3.7bn in last year's Autumn Statement after the Lib Dems vetoed his preferred figure of £10bn. The common belief among the Tories is that there is no area of spending the voters would rather see shrunk.

But a new ComRes/ITV News poll on the government's spending plans suggests this assumption is mistaken. It found that a majority of people either want welfare spending to be increased (43 per cent) or frozen (29 per cent), with just 27 per cent in favour of further cuts. Welfare is the fourth most popular area for government spending, with transport, defence, public sector pensions, local government and international development all viewed as more deserving of cuts. 

The most popular area for spending is the NHS, a vindication of Osborne's decision to protect the service from cuts. Just five per cent of voters believe health spending should be reduced and 71 per cent believe it should be increased. 

Ahead of this summer's Spending Review, which will set departmental spending limits for 2015-16, the poll should strengthen the cause of Danny Alexander and Iain Duncan Smith who have formed a united front against further welfare cuts. Those such as the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, who have argued that their departments should be protected, with the burden of cuts instead falling on welfare, will no longer be able to claim that they have the public on their side. 

George Osborne walks into Downing Street to attend a security meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden on February 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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