The benefits cap, which MPs voted through yesterday, is becoming an ever bigger headache for Labour. In the week that Fred Goodwin lost his knighthood and Stephen Hester lost his bonus it’s worth remembering that the family next door living off benefits grates far more with voters than the banker in his mansion.
Indeed, the latest polls confirm that the policy is probably the most popular measure the government has announced. The most recent YouGov survey shows that 72 per cent of voters support the £26,000 cap and that 52 per cent want a lower threshold. Labour’s reasoned objections to the cap fail to cut through because few voters are interested in the facts. They’ve simply fallen for the populist line that “no family should receive more in out-of-work benefits than the average family receives for going out of work”. Liam Byrne’s insistence that “we are in favour of a benefit cap, but we like a cap that doesn’t backfire” makes little sense to voters. Why would a cap of £26,000 – an amount that seems generous to most people- backfire?
The one hope for Labour is that as the full force of Osborne’s austerity programme is felt the mood will shift. The startling fact from yesterday’s Institute for Fiscal Studies Green Budget that 88 per cent of the planned public spending cuts and 88 per cent of the planned welfare cuts are still to come explains why Ed Balls and Ed Miliband believe they can still turn round the polls (the Tories currently enjoy a 12-point lead as the party that would best handle the economy). As many families experience unemployment for the first time in a generation, these ratings will begin to shift.
For this reason, it’s unsurprising to learn this morning from ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie that Number 10 is not forecasting a Tory majority at the next election. As I’ve noted before, even after the boundary changes have been implemented, the Tories will still need a seven point lead to win a majority. Labour, conversely, will require a lead of just 4 per cent. Another hung parliament looks like the most likely outcome of the next election. Those Conservative optimists and those Labour pessimists who expect to see a Tory majority in 2015 should look again at the data.