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Public opinion on benefits is not a one-way street

Voters believe the welfare system is too generous but also remain committed to fairness and to tackling "causes not symptoms".

Last night’s Channel 4 debate on welfare, which followed the final episode of Benefits Street was predictably feisty. Welfare and benefits are fairly hot topics, drawing opinions which come with plenty of baggage on a range of issues including self-responsibility and the role of the state.

During the debate some contributors talked about the need to understand "real" opinion beyond the audience of James Turner Street residents, programme makers, commentators and politicians. As well as (mis)representation, there was also much talk about (mis)perceptions.

These are clearly important factors driving the commissioning of the series in the first place as well as subsequent reaction to it. They also provide the backdrop to one of the most reformist periods in the history of our benefits system. That history has seen changing attitudes but it is worth remembering that there has never been universal support for the modern welfare state. In a survey commissioned by the BBC in 1956, two in five believed that the British way of life was deteriorating and the most common reason given was "too much welfare and care".

Today, behind every ten doors we knock on, we find seven Britons who think the benefits system is not working effectively, and three times as many who consider benefits too generous than think the opposite. There is a sense that there is insufficient link between paying in and getting out, and that some claimants are more deserving than others. Little wonder that we have found high levels of public support – by more than five to one – for the £26,000 household cap on benefits.

But attitudes are not all one-way. For example, there are equally strongly held views that it is important to have a benefits system to provide a safety net for anyone who needs it, and also evidence of a preference for reform tackling causes, not symptoms. The British are also sensitive to fairness; so, just as context shapes policy on benefits, the impact of policy and its perceived fairness might itself shape that context. Reflecting this, while support for the benefit cap looks set to endure, public opinion on the "bedroom tax" is more nuanced and less predictable.

Last year, the British Social Attitudes Survey found a "softening of attitudes" towards unemployment and welfare payments. At a time when the economy has started to improve, our monthly Issues Index – measuring what the public consider to be "the most important/among the most important issues facing the country" – has detected a rise in the salience of "poverty/inequality".

Finally, it is worth considering what the public understand about these issues. Ipsos MORI surveys have shown this to be fairly shallow in respect of benefits and welfare. Related to this, a study of housing benefit last year concluded that "facts in and of themselves will not change hearts and minds, but stories and emotions do". Given this, it is clear why Benefits Street has hit such a nerve.

Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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