Will Labour really lose support from voters if it goes ‘soft’ on Welfare?

December 13, 2012 7:13 am

Author:

Tags:

Share this Article

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.

  • Gabrielle

    That’s a very persuasive argument, particularly where you say that
    … 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.

    Perhaps it would be more fruitful for Labour to counter Tory attacks about welfare by pointing out the hypocrisy of the Tories – how they create unemployment and then blame the victims. Unemployment has always been a favourite ploy of the Tories – it pushes down wages for those in work and weakens the unions, plus it provides the opportunity for ‘divide and rule’ – ie getting the working poor to bitterly resent the unemployed poor, and even worse, those who are unable to work because of disability and/or sickness (closing Remploy factories didn’t help).

    Of course, popular papers like the Sun and Mail are on message to peddle this mendacious propaganda. The whole scenario is morally bankrupt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    Its not a matter of ‘going soft’ but doing what is right. No system in the world is infallible. I have absolutely no problem with clamping down on those who are swindling the system – though lets get this in perspective in terms of the amounts we are talking about. Tax evaders and avoiders need much more aggressive treatment!
    What is wrong is punishing everyone because of the actions of a few – and that is what is being proposed now. Because some do wrong, all must suffer and be labelled alongside the wrongdoers.
    We do need to be saying very clearly that most unemployed people and people on benefits are not ‘scroungers’ and that we will not pursue policies which indiscriminately target all claimants and make their lives even harder.

    • http://twitter.com/LouieWoodall Louie Woodall

      Agree- but only difficulty with that argument is that it harms the stricter regulation of bankers and increased taxation of the rich- saying “we’re being punished for the actions of the few” is the get out of jail card for banksters everywhere

  • AlanGiles

    “Phil Woolas was trotted out repeatedly to deliver the harsh language on “scroungers” and “fraudsters”

    Well, he was an expert… :-)

    But Mike has said what needs to be said in this thread

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000623749669 Giles Bradshaw

    What puts me off is reading the debates about whether the Labour party should decide it’s policies on what it believes is best for the country or what it thinks will get it the most votes.

  • Pingback: Silly reasons to say polls show Labour is weak on the economy | Liberal Conspiracy

  • Pingback: Here’s why the government is still obsessed by immigration | Liberal Conspiracy

  • Pingback: Liberal Conspiracy: Here’s why the government is still obsessed by immigration | moonblogsfromsyb

Latest

  • Featured Obama veteran David Axelrod joins Labour campaign team

    Obama veteran David Axelrod joins Labour campaign team

    There are few superstars in political campaigning – but David Axelrod is undoubtedly one of them. And he’s joining Labour’s 2015 election campaign team. The Obama veteran – who took the US President from state senator to the White House in a matter of years, and then got him re-elected – will be joining Labour’s campaign team as a Senior Strategic Adviser. That means he’ll be going head to head with fellow Obama veteran Jim Messina (now working with the […]

    Read more →
  • News A brief guide to David Cameron’s Christian “moral code”

    A brief guide to David Cameron’s Christian “moral code”

    As we approach Easter, David Cameron has talked about his “moral code”, called for a more strident Christianity that is “more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives” and praised ”countless acts of kindness carried out by those who believe in and follow Christ”. Meanwhile, a “Whitehall Source” was today smearing the Christian charity The Trussell Trust, who yesterday revealed that in the past year food bank use has reached […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour’s PPC for Colne Valley stands down

    Labour’s PPC for Colne Valley stands down

    Binnie Joshi Barr, Labour’s candidate in Colne Valley, has decided to step down due to health reasons. Barr announced her decision in a letter to local party members. She said: “Colne Valley deserves and will have a Labour MP in 2015. Unfortunately due to ill health, it is not going to be me. “Since the birth of my daughter Aarya eight weeks ago, my rheumatoid arthritis has returned and worse than before. I have regrettably come to the conclusion that […]

    Read more →
  • Comment How Putin shows the same ‘maskirovka’ as his own soldiers

    How Putin shows the same ‘maskirovka’ as his own soldiers

    Yesterday in the European Parliament the EU Commissioner at the heart of the Ukraine crisis told MEPs that the rhetoric from Russia was “worse than at any time in the Cold War.” Today in Geneva four-way talks are taking place which are bringing Europe back to the forefront of the diplomacy seeking to de-escalate the crisis. But the stand-off in towns across Eastern Ukraine remains at least as likely to trigger the very opposite. On behalf of Labour in Europe, we have continued to maintain […]

    Read more →
  • News NHS waiting list reaches nearly 3 million

    NHS waiting list reaches nearly 3 million

    The amount of patients waiting for NHS treatment has risen to 2.9 million, according to new referral to treatment times (RTT) figures. Meanwhile, the Health Service Journal reports (£): “The NHS has breached the target for 90 per cent of admitted patients to start treatment within 18 weeks for the first time since 2011, the latest figures from NHS England reveal.” With 550 of those patients having waited over a year for treatment, two thirds of England’s major A&Es missing their […]

    Read more →