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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Liberal Democrats pledge to take Britain back into the European Union

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron is channeling the anger of the 48 per cent. 

The Liberal Democrats took losing 49 seats in the General Election last year with more resignation than you might expect. 

But it turns out there's one thing they'll kick up a fuss about - Europe.

As half of the nation digested the facts of Brexitgeddon, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron stole the show with his refusal to discuss voter breakdown.

He told the BBC: 'I accept the result, but by golly I don't agree with it." 

Now he has pledged to fight the next General Election on a platform taking Britain back into Europe.

Farron, who has accused Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of "utter spinelessness", will tap into the growing discontent of Remain voters about the referendum result. 

With cries of "we are the 48 per cent", these voters argue such a decisive move should be dependent on more than a 50% majority. By Saturday afternoon, more than 1.6million had signed a petition calling on the Government to implement a rule that if the turnout was less than 75% and the vote in favour less than 60%, a second referendum should be called. 

The petitioners appear to come from university towns like Oxford, Cambridge and York, as well as larger cities. 

Farron said: “For many millions of people, this was not just a vote about Europe. It was a howl of anger at politicians and institutions who they felt they were out of touch and had let them down.
 
"The British people deserve the chance not to be stuck with the appalling consequences of a Leave campaign that stoked that anger with the lies of Farage, Johnson and Gove.
 
"The Liberal Democrats will fight the next election on a clear and unequivocal promise to restore British prosperity and role in the world, with the United Kingdom in the European Union, not out."

There's no doubting Farron's genuine indignation, or the Lib Dem's credentials when it comes to pro-EU pledges. And tapping into the groundswell of pro-EU sentiment is a smart move.

And his clear position makes a stark contrast to Labour's inward angst over immigration, free trade and leadership. 

But as EU leaders demand a quick resolution to Brexit, he may have less and less chance to implement his promise before it's too late.