The received wisdom in Westminster seems to be that cutting welfare will win votes. The Conservatives have proposed that benefits should be cut for families with more than two children and that people under 25 shouldn’t be able to claim benefits. An earlier supposed “vote winner” was the decision to cut housing benefit. Other measures that have been represented in the same light are the benefit cap and measures to stop ‘benefits tourism’, which affect very few people.
How does all this win votes? The argument made by Mark Wallace on Conservative Home is that
- “voters see welfare as a moral issue”
- “welfare reform … boosts our wider approval ratings”
- “Labour’s arguments on welfare have no impact”
- “with the right argument, support can go even higher”.
Those views are reinforced by the focus groups. They may well be widely held. If these arguments are going to be persuasive, however, there has to be a mechanism by which these sentiments can be translated into votes. There are many issues that people care about passionately – examples are abortion, smoking, planning decisions or same-sex marriage – but there’s very little evidence to suggest that these feelings, however strongly they’re held, actually change the way that people vote.
In a recent paper on The Politics of Austerity, Clarke and others report that the main influence on voting patterns seems to be a general appraisal of the economy, and that specific views about public spending cuts largely follow from that general perspective. As time goes on, they suggest, “public support for the cuts may be undermined by a lack of visible results in the real economy”. In the meantime, however, there does not seem to be any reason to suppose that people are going to change their vote on the basis that benefits are likely to be stricter if they do. Regardless of whether punitive measures are ‘popular’, I can’t see how they could conceivably determine the outcome of an election.
People tend to vote for many reasons – among them, ways that relate to their perceived interests, their beliefs, their political affiliation and their judgment of the character of the candidates. But the kinds of issues that are currently being addressed in welfare provision don’t directly affect the interests of the target voters themselves – they relate entirely to what they think or feel about the behaviour of someone else. It’s hard to believe that people are so determined to stop young adults under 25 from getting benefit that they will put aside thoughts about their personal income, their bills or their jobs to make sure that those people are cut off benefit.
There is another appeal to self-interest, however, that might be affected by these policies. There are over eight million people who receive out of work or low income benefits while of working age. There are more than twelve and a half million more older people who rely substantially on benefits. Anyone of working age might be incapacitated; few people are not affected by divorce, disability or unemployment in some way. None of the three main political parties at Westminster has been ready to stand up for people who get benefits. Perhaps they could win a few votes if they did.