The 2017 snap general election was, for many people, a remarkable result for Labour given the pervading conventional wisdom that the Labour party could not do well on a more left‐wing platform.
The Labour manifesto contained a range of more radical policies. In terms of welfare, these included abolishing the ‘bedroom tax’ and the removal of housing benefit for young people. Significant changes were also pledged to Universal Credit.
Most starkly, however, the 2017 manifesto made multiple references to ‘end the punitive sanctions regime’ for benefit recipients. Whilst the specific implications of this pledge were not elaborated, such a policy would nevertheless constitute a profound break with a welfare consensus spanning over twenty years. Likewise, a large scale of reform is proposed to disability benefits, and there are now confirmed plans to pilot universal basic income.
Collectively, these policies would seemingly be deeply at odds with public opinion on the benefits system, which over the course of the last two decades has significantly hardened. Yet despite the seemingly radical and controversial nature of the policy, it received very little media or public attention during the election campaign.
So what is Labour’s ‘quiet revolution’ on welfare? Is it indeed a bold attempt to reshape public opinion on welfare or, alternatively, a mostly pragmatic reaction to changing social attitudes?
The politics of conditionality
Some degree of conditionality has long been part of the UK social security system. The present, more intensified, system can be dated to the Conservative reforms of the mid‐1990s, which New Labour governments enthusiastically embraced. The quid pro quo approach – of rights and responsibilities for both the state and the claimant – was one of the defining features of New Labour’s political philosophy. Under the Conservative‐led governments from 2010, the number of welfare sanctions issued expanded rapidly and conditionality was extended further, including to those in paid employment under the new Universal Credit arrangements.
Ed Miliband’s Labour – for all the media scaremongering around a shift to the left – fell squarely within the rights and responsibilities tradition of Blair and Brown. So Labour’s recent policy on welfare conditionality thus represents a break with a political consensus that spans a quarter of a century.
However, what makes Labour’s challenge to conditionality all the more remarkable is that it seemingly breaks with another political tradition of the past two decades: the instinct that politicians must follow public opinion rather than try and reshape it.
Understanding Labour’s welfare strategy
There was public appetite for welfare reforms in the 1990s for at least two decades. Between 1994 and 2011, the percentage of British Social Attitudes (BSA) respondents who stated that unemployment benefits were ‘too high and discourage (unemployed people) from finding jobs’ increased from 24.9 per cent to 64.1 per cent.
But is public opinion towards welfare now changing? There are three arguments that stand out. The first is that other issues have overtaken social security and unemployment as issues of public concern. Figure 1 shows how unemployment was judged by many to be a key issue between 2011 and 2013. However as the labour market has improved since 2013, other issues, most notably the EU and the NHS, as well as to a lesser extent poverty, have become much more salient in the public mind.
Has the increased concern with issues Labour is more trusted on created the space for Labour to be bolder on welfare reform?
Second, public attitudes to welfare have never been as tough, uncompromising and homogeneous as many politicians and academics have thought. Geiger and Meuleman argue that most people’s views about social security are, at root, ambivalent. People tend to have both concerns about the welfare state whilst simultaneously feeling that many groups, such as the in‐work poor and disabled people, are ‘deserving’ of welfare: this is where Labour has focused its rhetoric.
Third, Labour’s new welfare strategy may not be boldly opposing dominant public opinion, but is rather responding to changes in social attitudes. One of the most recent BSA reports, for example, shows that there has been a rapid fall in perceptions of benefit fraud and manipulation.5 In addition, people are less likely to support further cuts to social security benefits than they were a few years ago.
For the reasons above, it is arguable that Labour is not so much confronting as following changing public opinion. It is important, however, to keep public opinion on welfare in perspective. As Table 1 shows, large numbers of people continue to hold hostile views on benefit claimants and, in particular, unemployed people. Whilst overall views on welfare may be softening, the 2012 BSA survey also demonstrates strong support for the principle of welfare conditionality.
Removing conditionality altogether, or even diluting it, would still constitute going against the grain of public opinion. There is, consequently, a fourth way of understanding Labour’s new welfare strategy. Since New Labour at least, there has been a tacit assumption that politicians should follow public opinion rather than try and reshape it. However, Labour could now be attempting to do what has long been considered on the left to be both improbable and undesirable: to transform public attitudes on welfare.
In fact, perhaps inadvertently, New Labour itself was hugely successful in changing a pre-1997 public opinion on welfare that was relatively benign into one that was by the early 2000s, far more hostile. More evidence for this can be found in the longer version of my article.
For example, Tom O’Grady shows that in Labour party speeches, negative depictions of welfare overtook positive depictions of welfare before the shift in public opinion occurred; New Labour did not respond to changing social attitudes, but actively reshaped them. It thus became terrified to confront a monster of its own making.
Transforming social attitudes to welfare might not be as risky as commonly perceived. A pilot for universal basic income, an unconditional, regular payment to all citizens, would truly test the malleability of public opinion on welfare. For a start, it would require governments to build public support for higher taxes, address the social norms around welfare provision, and engage with debates around the centrality of employment and the work ethic to many voters. When it comes to welfare, will the Labour party of today take its inspiration from New Labour?
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Political Quarterly journal.