May, Might and Matty T.

Matthew Taylor bumped into an awful lot of modal verbs in his blog post on the likelihood of a popular backlash against the government’s welfare freeze.

In a short post arguing that the future path of public opinion on welfare will be more simpatico for progressives, I counted Mr Taylor employing seven “may”s, which squirmed uneasily alongside a smattering of hunches, suspicions,  possibilities and “perhaps”s1

My immediate reaction was to sneer at this uncharacteristic deployment of dataless assertions hedged about by the insurance of auxiliary verbiage.

It’d a bit of an easy target – Matthew’s evidence for a pro-welfare shift consisted of him going to a seminar on poverty and hearing an anecdote from a friend who’d been on a website, and from this he appears to deduce that something might be happening out there in public attitudes to welfare. Well, I was ready to add that I’ve read the Guardian leader, and Will Hutton’s column was really cross, so that makes a tidal wave of evidence for such a shift.

However, as Matthew didn’t really doesn’t have much evidence to support this hunch, and he’s far too sensible to put himself on a columnists rhetorical hook, out came the modal verbs to protect him from sounding radical and silly.

But hold my sarcastic tongue. Because I’d bet my bottom dollar Matthew is right.

There will be a shift away from the sort of negative attitudes to welfare claimants and benefits we see today.

Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be right enough.

Let’s look at the British Social Attitudes Survey. Back in the early 90s recession, we had a fairly similar unemployment rate to today.

Then, 53% of respondents agreed that unemployment benefits were “too low and caused hardship” while 27% agreed they were “too high and discouraged work”. In 2011, The figures were 19% and 62%, respectively, more than reversing the ratio.((Nor is this purely an artefact of the intervening Labour government of 1997-2010. There was a steady decline in the number saying unemployment benefits were too low 1991-1997 and from 2010 to 2011))

There are some underlying attitudinal shifts here too.

Back in 1991 during the recession, 38% of people agreed that  “most unemployed people could find a job if they wanted one2

Since the 2008 recession, the figure has not yet dropped below 54%.

This means I find it difficult to imagine the trend won’t change direction.

We’re already at historically high levels of hostility to welfare payment and generosity. It’s hard to imagine opinion swinging further against the welfare system than it already is.

What’s more, as the cuts bite, people will likely shift towards the belief that benefits cuts cause hardship. As  there are more stories about food banks, and poverty and so on. There will likely be a shift towards the belief that benefits are ‘too low’. If unemployment remains stubborn, and growth limited, more people will come to believe that the unemployed are genuinely struggling to find work. This has been the pattern during previous recessions, and during previous rounds of spending cuts.

However, there are reasons to doubt that the shift will be transformative.

First, there seems to be a generational difference in attitudes to welfare. Work by Bobby Duffy of Mori and Duncan O’Leary of Demos shows a consistent generational gap on welfare. Basically, the younger you are, the less likely you are to agree that “the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor

This is reflected in the polling on the autumn statement – last week YouGov found that the age-group most likely to say that Welfare benefits should be frozen, not increased by 1% were the 18-24year olds. As Duffy and O’Leary say “There is little sign of a “lifecycle effect”, in which our attitudes become more like those of our parents as we grow older. The implication is that the declining public support for redistributive policies may not be cyclical but rather a glimpse of the future”

So there has both been a broad trend against welfare redistribution and taxes over the last decade, and within that a generational shift in which younger age cohorts are more hostile to the basic principle of welfare redistribution.3

All of which means that far from being broad-based and transformative, it seems more likely that the shift towards a more “Pro-Welfare” political position that Matthew identifies will be as hesitant, provisional and unsure as his own prose.

There is a political danger here for the left. If the tide is turning “our way”, but not running very far, very fast or particularly strongly, the risk is that we see the voters turn away from the harshest judgements of the government on society, but we mistake the depth and impact of that swing, and so spend rather a long time waiting for the pendulum to move far enough towards us that we can grab onto it.

Perhaps the best way to express this is that roughly twice as many people feel benefits are too high today than did in 1983, 1987 or 1991.

Similarly,  In 1987 and 1991 twice as many people felt more should spend more on welfare benefits than do today. These high levels of support did not herald a new progressive dawn

The pendulum probably is going to swing, but it has a loooong way to swing, Matthew.

  1. Here are the “may”s: “public opinion is both reflexive and subject to substantial shifts in mood. I suspect that three things may be coinciding to produce just such a shift.. .

    ..The number who find the striver/ shirker distinction uncomfortable may be increasing…

    …political analysts may have committed the classic error of linear thinking a complex world…

    ….it may be that the gradual build-up of social concern about the poor was just waiting for a catalyst… ..Government ministers may have inadvertently provided just that catalyst.”

    .. may have marked the beginning of the end of one long running narrative..

    …the opportunity may now be there for some campaigning brilliance…” []

  2. this was a decline from was 52% in 1989, at the height of the Lawson boom. Usually the figure was in the low forties or high thirties. []
  3. Speaking of the youth, I keep hearing various ‘voices of a generation’ in their newspaper columns. Oddly, none of them say stuff like this. Typical out of touch university educated elites, I reckon []

2 Responses to “May, Might and Matty T.”

  1. Brian Hughes

    The British Social Attitudes Surveys make depressing but unsurprising reading. No one in politics, journalism or the media nowadays seems remotely interested in the plight of the forgotten 10%. Well it’s only six million or so Brits living in comparative squalor isn’t it?

    A modern-day Charles Dickens wouldn’t find a publisher, were a Cathy Come Home like programme even to be made it’d be tucked away on BBC Four where no-one apart from a handful of Guardian readers would watch it and any politician who took Polly Toynbee’s advice last Friday and was “bold” would soon find his career hitting the buffers.

    Andrew Grice wrote rather well on this topic in Saturday’s Indy “Before every announcement of welfare reform there is a blitz in … newspapers about … false claims and skivers…”

    Do they teach timid blandness on PPE courses these days? It seems to be an essential requirement for anyone employed by or seeking to become an influential MP in the Modern British Labour Party.

  2. David Walsh

    I might come across as a mini Matthew Taylor, but I think he is right. As someone who (outside of day job life) spends his time with non-political ‘ordinary’ people (I’m the only Guardian reader in the pub….) I have noticed a shift in attitude over recent months. FWIW I guess this is linked to the sheer number of people hit by the changes to ESA and DLA and the witch finders of ATOS (the single most high profile issues in our office casework at the moment). Add in the impact of the HB changes and the Bedroom Tax, and the way this ripples through extended family networks, then a growing resentment is guaranteed,

    This will not show in places like London where social structures and relationships are ones of association rather than community.

    As to how it will play at the polls – well the younger may be more hostile to benefit claimants and older people more willing to see a case. In terms of simple polling maths the latter are the ones who will be voting – not the former.


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