Welfare? April 11, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Economy, The Left.
Last month Prospect Magazine ran an article by Peter Kellner of YouGov, arguing that there was a quiet revolution taking place. He posits on foot of the problems the Conservatives ran into with welfare ‘reform’ bill that polling data conducted on behalf of Prospect magazine suggested that there was a shift taking place in relation to the attitude in Britain towards welfare itself.
And this wasn’t a shift that the left would be comfortable with.
He argues that:
A number of different, though related, issues need to be teased apart: the affordability of the welfare system as a whole, our attitudes to redistribution, the extent to which people think the system is being abused, attitudes to specific recipient groups, and the enduring debate over universal versus targeted benefits.
So what are the results?
To the question: “In general, do you agree or disagree with this statement ‘The government pays out too much in benefits; welfare levels overall should be reduced?’” 74 per cent agree; 17 per cent disagree.
To the idea of cutting back benefit 51 per cent agree while 35 per cent disagree.
More disturbingly again he notes that Labour voters support cuts 59 per cent to 32 per cent.
Kellner looks at other YouGov research and notes one very interesting snippet.
Last spring we asked people about taxation and public spending. We listed the variety of taxes, and the different forms of public spending and asked how fair the system was. To some extent with spending, and to a greater extent with taxes, people thought the systems unfair.
We then asked people to take all the different taxes and forms of spending into account, and posed this question: in terms of you and your immediate family, do you think the overall value of the benefits and public services you receive are worth more or less than the taxes you pay? A mere 8 per cent said they were net gainers, while 55 per cent said they were net losers. (The rest thought the two were roughly in balance or didn’t know.)
And he points to middle class voters as believing themselves to be ‘losers rather than gainers’ by nine to one, but he notes that working class voters hold the same views six to one.
His analysis is, that along with information from the British Social Attitudes data that since the 1980s indicates a slippage in support for redistribution.
On a political level none of this should be a surprise. The Thatcher period was a time when the very concept of redistribution was pushed aside. Support for
But here’s a thought. Kellner notes that:
We asked people how many welfare claimants are “scroungers” in the sense that they “lie about their circumstances in order to obtain higher welfare benefits (for example by pretending to be unemployed or ill or disabled) or deliberately refuse to take work where suitable jobs are available.” Just 28 per cent think the problem is confined to “a small minority” or “few, if any” claimants. Two-thirds of the public say that “scroungers” are a “significant minority” or “around half” or a majority.
But he doesn’t contextualise the piece with the actual figures. That lack of contextualisation is important because it somewhat adds to the discourse surrounding this issue that there are a significant numbers ‘scrounging’. Interestingly we know from the Irish experience in recent years that benefit fraud is actually very low and relatively easily dealt with and that the discourse is simply wrong on that issue.
For those of us who argue for universal provision – a position that might be seen as traditional strong social democrat (and even weak social democrat given that just this last month Frank Field, of all people, was arguing for universal provision), this is dispiriting.
There is another dimension to the vexed issue of who are “the right people.” Some of our benefits are universal (notably the state pension and winter fuel allowance). Child benefit is currently paid to all parents of children under 16, but will be removed from higher-rate taxpayers from next year. Other benefits are means-tested.
The argument for universal benefits is a familiar one. They bind society together. They avoid stigma. They are cheap to administer. They reflect the view that there are other kinds of redistribution than rich to poor—such as from childless adults to parents and children, and from working people to the elderly. They uphold the principle of national insurance, that we pay money in at one stage in our lives, and draw it out at another.
How persuasive are such arguments these days? We tested them in relation to child benefit and pensions. On child benefit, the public’s verdict is clear cut. Seventy per cent, support its withdrawal from higher-rate taxpayers. Only 21 per cent oppose the move.
And depressingly it is those on lower incomes who are most antagonistic to universalism in this provision. Small wonder, given the discourse surrounding it though. What’s fascinating is that the issue of general taxation to fund it is rarely raised. But then, as evidenced by the near-fetishistic reduction of the top rate in the UK in the past month or so, we know all too well the dominant narrative on that in the contemporary period.