Every time the Conservatives say something about cutting welfare, familiar arguments play out across the Labour party. The left flank says, “Labour could turn Osborne’s cynical ploy into an opportunity to transform the debate on the issues of welfare, poverty, fairness in our society.”
The right of the Labour party is more fearful of this so-called ‘trap’ and continually warn that cutting benefits is popular with many of the people Labour seeks to represent, and would lose them votes.
We know where the party should stand in principle but the politics matters. My issue is more that assumptions about how welfare affects voting is driven more by instinct than actual data.
Where is the evidence it has worked in the past?
You couldn’t accuse the last Labour government of being soft on people on welfare benefits. Phil Woolas was trotted out repeatedly to deliver the harsh language on “scroungers” and “fraudsters” who ripped off the system. Labour even unveiled billboard ads calling on people to report benefit fraudsters.
And yet in 2010 most voters still thought Labour was ‘soft’ on welfare recipients. Almost every study shows Labour simply reinforced the ‘undeserving poor’ narrative – thereby cementing Tory advantage on the issue.
To put it simply: if being hard on welfare is electorally popular, where were the benefits for New Labour in 2010? And how far is the leadership willing to go to neutralise their ‘disadvantage’?
Obama faced a similar challenge very recently. Republicans attacked him for opposing ‘right to work’ legislation. Romney even cut a very dishonest ad attacking him for being soft on welfare. The electoral impact was nearly zero: Obama still won comfortably, and the voters he lost were disappointed about the state of the economy, not welfare.
What about the voters you lose?
In the latest YouGov polling, a majority of Labour voters (55%) said benefits should have been ‘increased in line with inflation or more’. Only 17% were happy with Osborne’s policy and only 16% of Labour supporters wanted a freeze in benefits.
Some within the party counter by saying: Ahh, but we don’t just want support from Labour voters. Perhaps, but politics is usually a zero sum game: you move in one direction you can gain votes while simultaneously losing them from another.
Many in the Labour right assume that moving right-wards still keeps left-wing voters on side because they have nowhere else to go. But 2010 blew a hole in that theory: left-wing voters abandoned Labour and moved to the Libdems (many have moved back but don’t assume they’ll stay).
The key question is: given that a majority of Labour voters think Osborne’s 1% rise was harsh – why would imitating Osborne gain Labour more votes than losing them?
Welfare isn’t even that central to people’s voting behaviour
Even if you’re behind on issue – is it important enough for them to vote Tory?
According to Ipsos-Mori, only 9% of voters think pensions and social security is a key issue for Britain. It ranks below: the economy, unemployment, the NHS, immigration, crime, inflation and education.
To emphasise the point, more people care about poverty and inequality as a top issue than social security.
Let me summarise this
The percentage of voters who pay attention to Westminster policy debates is small as it is.
Of that group, most who think Labour is soft on welfare are Tories and wouldn’t vote for Labour anyway. Labour could bend over backwards to reach out to them but then it will lose other voters.
Of the even smaller percentage who are paying attention and may consider voting Labour, welfare isn’t even a key issue.
So where is the actual evidence that it loses votes for the Labour party? If your only argument is that a percentage of voters consider this to be important in a poll, then Labour would win in a landslide simply by promising to raise taxes (which is far more popular). That’s not a very sophisticated argument.