Poll finds majority oppose Osborne's benefit cuts
by Tori Harris
The economy is the top issue of concern for the British public and has been since September 2008, so the importance for the government of being seen to implement cuts fairly can hardly be overstated, says research company
The latest Ipsos MORI poll shows that not everyone has been convinced by the British government narrative in light of last week's Autumn Statement. The British public do not think that all groups in society are being asked to contribute fairly to the government's response to the economic crisis through taxes or cuts to public services. Though Chancellor George Osborne recently said that his plans hit the richest 20 per cent the most, 51 per cent of people think that low earners are being asked to do too much, while only 10 per cent say the same of the rich.
On a more personal level, three in 10 British adults think that people like them are being asked to do too much as part of the government's plans. Certain groups are more likely to feel this way. For example, about a third of those aged 18-54 feel that they are being asked to do too much compared to a quarter of those aged 55 and over. First hand experiences of the consequences of public sector cuts may also be coming into play, with 41 per cent of public sector workers agreeing that people like them are being asked to do too much, compared to 31 per cent of private sector workers. Similarly, 40 per cent of the lowest social grades feel this way compared with 24 per cent of the highest social grade.
Interestingly pensioners are still seen by 42 per cent of the public as being asked to do too much despite the fact that most pensions were protected in Osborne's statement. Moreover, this is a view held even more strongly by young people. Even though those under 54 are more likely to think they are having to do too much, they are also more likely to say that pensioners are being over-burdened too. Concerns from the working-age population about their own contribution do not appear to have translated into a cross-generational conflict with those largely avoiding the brunt of the cuts.
The poll also reveals differences in how the public views 'low earners' and welfare claimants. Some 51 per cent of the British public say that low earners are being asked to do too much in shouldering the burden of the government's response to the economic crisis. However, in contrast to the public's concern for low earners, 34 per cent think that welfare claimants are being asked to do too little by the government.
Despite this perception that welfare claimants could do more as part of the government's plans to restore economic strength, the majority of the British public do not agree with the Chancellor's plans, announced as part of the Autumn Statement last week, to increase working-age benefits by less than inflation. Rather six in 10 Britons, or 59 per cent, think benefit payments should continue to rise in line with inflation and a further 10 per cent think they should rise by more than inflation.
It is difficult to say whether this is because people have taken on board the messages from the Labour Party about the impact of cuts to welfare benefits on those in work, or whether raising benefits by less than inflation simply does not sit comfortably within the public's perceptions of what constitutes fair cuts. More fundamentally, it could also be that when it comes down to it the public finds it difficult to cut others' benefits.
Though all this may appear to undermine the idea that we are all in this together, we should bear in mind that half of the British public think that people like them and the middle classes are being asked to do about the right amount as part of the government's plans. Indeed, in the same poll, despite the bad economic news, Osborne clawed back the lead Ed Balls had gained as the most capable chancellor following the Budget in March. Taking these things together the government can argue that this suggests so far they are getting a difficult balancing act about right.
However, the differing perceptions of contributions by 'low earners' and 'welfare claimants' discussed above suggests that there is potential for the current spat between the government and Labour on this issue to contain pitfalls for both parties. This is especially so given how much longer this period of austerity is now set to last. A third of people already report that they have been affected by cuts to public services, and 61 per cent are concerned about the effects of cuts on them and their families still to come over the next year. With the Ipsos MORI Economic Optimism Index dropping to -27 this month, the government may face more of a struggle to keep people feeling that they are contributing about the right amount to the austerity plans in the coming months.
Tori Harris is a researcher at Ipsos MORI