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.

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. 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Emily Thornberry triumphs over Brexit

The shadow foreign secretary skewered Theresa May's stand-in David Lidington. 

Two years ago, when Emily Thornberry was forced to resign from Ed Miliband's shadow cabinet over her white van tweet, few would have expected her to return to the frontbench. Today, she led her party at Prime Minister's Questions. Jeremy Corbyn has appointed his Islington neighbour as his stand-in when he or Theresa May is absent. With both the Prime Minister and Philip Hammond abroad, Thornberry faced David Lidington, the hitherto obscure Leader of the Commons. 

Thornberry, a former barrister, arrived with a reputation as a strong parliamentary performer. It was one enhanced today. From her first question, the shadow foreign secretary was in control. "Does the government want the UK to remain part of the customs union?" As Thornberry anticipated, Lidington was unable to say, merely promising "additional clarity about our position at the earliest opportunity". 

Rather than relenting (as Corbyn sometimes does), Thornberry pressed her advantage. "Does he still agree with himself?” she asked after quoting a doom-laden warning from the pro-Remain Lidington. "There has been a referendum since February," he retorted, warning that it would be harmful to the "national interest" to provide a "detailed exposition of our negotiating position". With pantomime theatricality, an exasperated Thornberry replied: “Dear, oh dear. We’re not asking for details, we’re asking about a central plant of the negotiation."

When she turned to the status of the Irish border, Lidington was similarly hamstrung. "There is good will on all those sides to try and reach a solution," was all he could promise. The Leader of the House wasn't hiding the answers; he doesn't know the answers. 

Thornberry's line of attack was aided by rare clarity on the Labour side. The opposition, she declared, supported customs union membership. By contrast, "we have a government that cannot tell us the plan because they do not have a plan." Thornberry ended by once again torturing Lidington with his own words: "In February, the Leader of the House said what he was hearing about from the Leave campaign was confusing, contradictory nonsense. My final question is this: are we hearing anything different from this government today?" Lidington's retort fell flat: "[Labour's] quarrelling like Mutiny on the Bounty re-shot by the Carry On team". From the gallery above, Thornberry's spin doctor Damian McBride smiled at a job well done. 

The odds on Lidington succeeding May are unlikely to have shortened. But Thornberry, a Corbyn loyalist, has shown why it would be hasty to write her off. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.