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22 March 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:22pm

How George Osborne’s view of humanity brought him unstuck over cuts

It's not enough just to listen to focus groups. You have to think about what they say, too.

By Ben Shimshon

Alongside concern about immigration (and not by any means separate from it), anger about “benefit scroungers” is a staple of political focus groups. In the course of discussing almost any political issue (especially those related to public spending choices), swing voters quickly raise the issue of “people who just claim, and claim, and claim|

“. Participants are able to draw on vivid, detailed examples of people who play the system in order to avoid working, drawn from the media, but also stories of neighbours, acquaintances, people overheard at bus-stops and in supermarkets. These conversations often take on a tone of deep frustration, anger and indignation that ‘the system’ supports those who ‘don’t want to work’, allowing them lifestyle choices unconscionable for hard working people ‘like me’.

This is tempting ground indeed for those who advise on political positioning: fertile, emotive, territory where a politician can clearly establish their credentials with some floating voters, at the expense of a much less electorally salient group. However, rather than representing a deft occupation of voters’ moral universe, George Osborne’s “suggestion” that a budget that benefits those on higher incomes, could make its biggest savings from disabled people who rely on an aid or appliance to perform basic tasks, belies a reductive, simplistic and fundamentally erroneous characterization of voter motivations: One that sees “middle England swing voters” (and indeed the electorate generally) as singularly driven by their sense of anger and affront.

It’s a rookie mistake, really. And it shows a deep disrespect for the people whose votes Osborne seeks. Yes, there’s loads of anger out there; yes, when you listen to voters, that anger often feels stronger, more clearly defined and more impassioned than do their more positive feelings, hopes and beliefs; and yes, in the context of a focus group (where participants’ shared anger at ‘welfare cheats’ can serve to stoke-up a common sense of indignation) even cutting PIP could seem like an acceptable part of a budget package aimed at the laudable goals of controlling spending and making work pay.  

The problem is that the acute sense of fairness that drives such fury and outrage at the ‘benefits scrounger’, is equally sensitive to any suggestion that those who do the right thing, or who genuinely need support to get by, are being penalized. Welfare cuts in the abstract may test well, especially when accompanied by the frames and messages of a budget speech, but once it comes down to this or that specific benefit, the focus shifts to those that the benefit was there to help in the first place. They may hate abuse of the system and believe it to be widespread and endemic, but swing voters (like most other people) also support the idea of a ‘safety net’, and won’t blithely accept deficit reduction as an excuse for sacrificing help for those in genuine need.

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That isn’t to say that swing voters are really motivated by optimism, generosity, sweetness and light. Rather it’s to say that they operate in the same shades of grey as everyone else. BritainThinks’ analysis of the underlying causes of Labour’s failure in May 2015 found that many ex-Labour voters who chose the Conservatives in 2015, felt Labour were solely on the side of those who rely on welfare and benefits, and not ‘for me’ at all. In contrast, the Conservatives had succeeded as positioning themselves on the side of ‘working families’. This was, and remains, a strategically disastrous position for Labour to be in, and one that the Conservatives have effectively nurtured and encouraged through their own focus on helping ‘hard working people’ to pay less tax and save for their futures.

This lack of nuanced thinking about voters isn’t specific to the Conservative party, it’s equally present in conversations with Labour politicians, and manifest in the broader media discussion of voters (think Mondeo man and Worcester woman). However, the PIP retreat (like last years’ u-turn on working tax credit cuts) is another stark reminder of what happens when the quest for a crisp, binary, dividing line reflects black and white thinking about the electorate itself.

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Ben Shimshon is co-founder and director of BritainThinks. He tweets as @benshimshon.