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The austerity backlash: public support for the welfare state rises

The 2013 British Social Attitudes report shows a significant rise in support for higher benefits even if it means higher taxes.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives to attend the government's weekly cabinet meeting at Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

One truism among George Osborne and his team is that "you can never be too tough on welfare". But after three years of benefit cuts, the new (and always fascinating) British Social Attitudes report shows that support for the welfare state and sympathy for the unemployed is rising. 

The number of people agreeing that benefits for the jobless are "too high and discourage work" fell from a high of 62% in 2011 to 51% in 2012. There has also been a five point increase in the number (47%) who believe that cutting benefits "would damage too many people’s lives". In addition, 34% support spending more on social security even if it means higher taxes, up from 28% in 2011. The proportion who believe that the unemployed could find work if they really wanted to, has fallen from 68% in 2008 to 54%. It does appear, as the survey's organisers suggest, that austerity is "beginning to soften the public mood" although it's also possible that the coalition's welfare reforms (such as the benefit cap) have increased confidence in the system. 

Less happily, support for the welfare state remains at a near-record low. In 1987, 55% of the population favoured spending more on benefits, a figure that now stands at 34%. But given the misinformation spread by the media about the system, this is hardly surprising. More than eight out of 10 (81%) believe that large numbers of people falsely claim benefits (fraud actually represents just 0.7% of the budget) compared with 67% in 1987.

But if there is any consolation for social democrats, it's that the numbers are at least moving in the right direction. I'd expect this trend to continue as Osborne's cuts to in-work benefits and tax credits (which are being uprated by just 1%, a real-terms cut) hit families already suffering from the longest squeeze on living standards since the 1870s. The coalition, which rejoices in reinforcing tabloid myths of "scroungers", may yet find that it has underestimated the decency of the public.