The Tories have lost the public on health but not on welfare reform
The Observer, by Andrew Rawnsley
The voters could turn against Labour on benefits just as they have rounded on the Tories over the health service
For this government, trouble comes in pairs. On health and on welfare, ministers have been battered in the week just gone and face further assault in the week just begun. The schemes of Andrew Lansley and the plans of Iain Duncan Smith both involve change to hugely complex, high-spending areas of the welfare state. Both endeavours are led by cabinet ministers who believe themselves to be on a career-defining mission. Both of them have a tricky relationship with Downing Street. Both arouse fierce opposition. Both make many of their Lib Dem coalition partners feel queasy. Both departments have attracted so much flak that the prime minister has felt forced to be his own spokesman. Over the NHS legislation and the back-to-work programme, David Cameron has gone on to the airwaves to protest that the government’s intentions are being "misrepresented", which is always the lament of a leader who fears he is losing the battle for public opinion.
The prime minister’s "health summit" at Number 10 was indeed a presentational disaster. The exclusion from the meeting of the professional bodies that want the legislation dropped has reinforced the sense that the government is stubbornly unwilling to listen. The confrontation of the health secretary by 75-year-old June Hautot was a reminder that there are few encounters more dangerous for a politician than a street ambush by a passionate, articulate lady of mature years. She did not get the chance to say much to the health secretary, but she got to say enough to make him look even more embattled and force her views to the top of all the news bulletins. And what she said – that the Tories want to privatise the NHS – is the most politically toxic charge that can be laid against the government.
It has been an equally rough time on the other front. The back-to-work scheme has been left in some disarray. This is not because some critics have denounced work placements for people on benefits as "slave labour". This sort of hyperbole is easy for ministers to shrug off as hysterical. "Slave labour" is what Hitler used to build V-1 rocket launch sites, Stalin used in the gulags and the young United States used to build the White House. Gaining work experience with a retailer is not the equivalent of the Tudor poor laws when those able but unwilling to work were incarcerated in houses of correction – well, it is only an equivalent if you take a particularly severe view of Tesco. The better-aimed criticisms of the various schemes is that they may not be very effective at putting people into permanent jobs and some companies may be using people on benefits to do work that would otherwise have gone to paid employees. It is not fair, capitalist or even conservative for the state to use taxpayers’ cash to subsidise the wage bill of highly profitable retailers. Ministers are now floundering because many of those companies have been embarrassed into withdrawing from schemes.
To cap a bad run for the government, David Cameron lost Emma Harrison, his "families tsar", whose company is at the centre of a police investigation into the abuse of government back-to-work contracts. She resigned just 24 hours after Number 10 was insisting that she would be staying put. Downing Street tsars, like the original, Russian variety, often come to a sticky end.
To complete the apparent similarities, both the health bill and the welfare legislation will be back before the Lords this week. For all the focus on the health bill, it is the welfare legislation that has so far had the more torrid time at the hands of peers. The government has suffered one outright reverse on the health bill to eight defeats on the welfare legislation, including a rebellion led by the bishops against the proposed £26,000 cap on the amount of benefit any one household can receive in a year.
Superficially, then, the government is in as much trouble over welfare reform as it is over health – perhaps more so if we look only at the scoreboard in the Lords and the number of negative headlines in the media. Yet ministers view them quite differently. There is mounting and serious alarm in the highest reaches of the cabinet about the trouble they have got into over health. There is continuing, almost complete and unanimous confidence that they are moving in the right direction on welfare and work. For there is one crucial difference between the two. On health, they have lost public opinion even before the plan is implemented. On welfare, they still enjoy the broad, underlying support of the many voters who want reform of the benefits system to place more emphasis on the responsibility of those who can work to seek employment.
This contrast is partly explained by how the Conservatives went about preparing the public for change. On welfare, the Tories made their intentions clear before the election. Iain Duncan Smith’s plans may not have been spelt out in every detail, but the direction of travel was known and it was one with which many voters agreed. That is why they were so up front about it: they knew welfare reform was highly popular with the Tory core vote and many swing voters, and also pretty popular with many voters who are usually Labour-leaning. They could also argue some continuity with the previous government. It was Labour which introduced the highly contentious work availability tests on those claiming disability benefit. It was Labour which first gave back-to-work contracts to the private sector, including Ms Harrison’s company. On health, voters did not want the Conservatives to be "the same old Tories", which is why David Cameron went to such pains before the election to try to convince them he wouldn’t be. On welfare, a lot of voters were and are looking for the Conservatives to cut back and crack down; they do want them to be "the same old Tories".
That is because the public has developed very different attitudes towards these legacies of the postwar Labour government. The core principle of the NHS – that health care should be provided to all regardless of the ability to pay or how you have conducted your life – continues to enjoy enormous support. Few regard the health service as perfect, but it is better regarded by the public than most other national institutions. People still believe it is worth spending taxpayers’ money on the NHS, which is why David Cameron gave its budget some protection from the squeeze imposed in other areas.
That sort of approval no longer exists for the benefits system. There is instead hostility to the idea that welfare should be an unconditional safety net. The public still has quite generous attitudes to specific groups that are seen as vulnerable, especially children, the old and the disabled. But there is a very wide and entrenched view that the benefits system is directing too much money to the wrong people. This is illustrated by some recent polling by YouGov for Prospect. It found that 74% of voters think that Britain shells out too much on welfare and should cut the amount spent on benefits. Only 17% disagreed.
Strikingly, among those living on less than £10,000 a year – a group very likely to be drawing on help from the state – a majority agreed with the statement "the government pays too much in benefits". So did a majority of those respondents who described themselves as Labour supporters, a warning to Labour about the potential electoral penalties of opposing welfare reform.
Recession does not appear to have made those in work more altruistic to those without it. If anything, public attitudes have been hardened by austerity. As Peter Kellner has written: "There is now a huge preference for conditional rather than unconditional welfare. The Victorian distinction between the "deserving" and the "undeserving poor" may have been consigned to the dustbin of heartless social attitudes, but its cousin, the concept of a reciprocal relationship between taxpayer and welfare recipient, enjoys great support."
In this area, Labour has to be very careful. A broad swath of opinion believes it is reasonable to ask those on benefits to do something in return, which is why Labour criticism of the government placement schemes will be smart if it is about what they mean in practice rather than blanket opposition to the principle. The proposed annual cap on household benefits is set at median earnings after tax, which will not strike most voters as extraordinarily draconian. I suspect it will be regarded by many as remarkably generous. Labour put itself with the bishops but against most of the public when it voted against the cap. After that vote, George Osborne wandered over to the Labour frontbench to offer his sarcastic thanks to them for handing him a large part of the next Tory election campaign.
Some very senior Labour figures privately contend that the coalition has made such terrible mistakes over the NHS that it could rival the economy as the pre-eminent issue for the voters at the next election. What Labour has to beware is that it does not lose the argument on welfare as badly as the Tories have on health.