How the Lib Dems broke their promise to block new welfare cuts

The party vowed to block further welfare cuts but the seven-day wait for benefits amounts to a £245m cut.

Before the Spending Review, the Lib Dems repeatedly stated that they would accept no further cuts to welfare. Danny Alexander said in February 2013: 

We've got no plans at all to go back to the welfare budget as part of that process [the Spending Review]. What I'm focused on is finding that £10 billion or so from within the spending the government departments do.

I've got no plans to reopen the welfare issue. We agreed significant measures in the autumn and we're legislating for those at the moment. The balance has to be found from departmental budgets. Everyone's got to play their part.

More recently, Nick Clegg said that he was prepared to consider new cuts but only if George Osborne began by removing benefits, such as Winter Fuel Payments and free bus passes, from wealthy pensioners. "I believe that if you’re going to reopen welfare, it’s only fair to work at the top and work down, not start at the bottom and work up," he said

When Osborne and Cameron responded by reaffirming the Tories' 2010 pledge to protect all pensioner benefits, it appeared welfare spending was off the table. The Chancellor had already taken £21.6bn from the mostly poor and would take no more. 

But when he addressed the Commons yesterday, Osborne did announce further benefit cuts - and he started at the bottom. The new seven-day wait before the unemployed can claim benefits will reduce spending by £245m in 2015-16 (and £765m by 2018). Though some may seek to present it as a "reform", it is a cut. The money that claimants lose from having to wait a week for their benefits (which will force thousands more to turn to food banks) will not be backdated; it has gone for good. The introduction of tougher interview requirements is also expected to reduce spending (by £120m in 2015-16), presumably since those who fail to turn up (often with good reason) will be sanctioned.

It's true that Osborne also announced plans to remove Winter Fuel Payments from pensioners who live in hot countries (defined as those with "an average winter temperature higher than the warmest region of the UK") but this hardly qualifies as a significant reduction; it will save just £30m a year. 

Clegg insisted he would only accept new welfare cuts if the majority of savings came from the wealthy, but, once again, it's the poorest who've been hit. 

Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.