Pressure on Labour to adopt a tougher stance on welfare has increased after new research showed that the party’s own supporters are less sympathetic towards benefit claimants.
While the public became more sympathetic towards people in poverty during the recessions of the 1990s and late 2000s, attitudes towards claimants hardened. The change was caused by a shift amongst Labour supporters, whose views moved much closer towards people who vote Conservative.
The NatCen Social Research findings for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published today (tues), will fuel a debate inside Labour its stance on welfare. Ed Miliband has accused the Conservatives of dividing the country into “scroungers and strivers” but David Cameron has hit back by branding Labour “the welfare party”.
The Tories claim Labour is out of touch with public opinion. Although Labour has pledged to cut the benefits of the long-term unemployed if they refuse a government “job guarantee,” some Labour MPs are pressing their leaders to take a harder line, fearing that it will lose votes if people regard it as the “benefits party.”
Today only 27 per cent of Labour supporters believe “social injustice” is the reason people are in poverty, down from 41 per cent in 1986. The number who blame the individual rose from 13 per cent to 22 per cent over the same period.
Amongst the public as a whole, 54 per cent now believe that if benefits were not so generous, people would learn to stand on their own two feet – up from 33 per cent in 1987. The proportion who believe the unemployed could find a job if they wanted to more than doubled from 27 per cent to 56 per cent over the same period. Attitudes have hardened among younger adults: the gap between 18-34 year-olds and older age groups has halved.
The proportion of the public who believe people “live in need” because of laziness or lack of willpower has risen from 12 per cent to 23 per cent since 1994.
Two out of three people (66 per cent) believe the main explanation for child poverty is the characteristics and behaviour of parents, while only 28 per cent think it is caused by broader social issues. But 82 per cent of people think that cutting child poverty is “very important.”
Julia Unwin, the foundation’s chief executive, said: “The stark findings of this report highlight the increasingly tough stance people are taking against people in poverty. We appear to be tough on those experiencing poverty, but not tough on its causes.
“Reductions in pensioner and child poverty over the past 20 years show hardship is not inevitable. But the debate must go beyond a fixation with welfare and benefits tinkering – without jobs with proper wages and affordable housing and childcare, progress will hit the buffers.”
Ms Unwin added: “With living standards falling and welfare reform in sharp focus, the plight of the poorest households across the country will be a defining election issue. Increased poverty is a record no government wants, so all parties need to match public support for tackling hardship with evidenced anti-poverty strategies.”