THE BLOG

Strangle Lies and Spin About Our Welfare State

17/01/2014 15:10 GMT | Updated 19/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Say what you like about George Osborne, he knows how to read an opinion poll.

Now that's not such an unusual or admirable trait in a politician, but bear with me.

On Thursday he tried to steal Ed Miliband's 'cost of living' thunder by suggesting he wanted to see an inflation-busting increase in the national minimum wage - going as far as to declare the nation "could afford it".

This, he knows, would be a popular policy, as a recent YouGov poll (pdf) showed 66% of voters supported a "substantial increase ", with only 19% opposing. More Tories said they supported it than opposed.

Trade unions have long made the case for such an increase and we are clearly winning this argument. The Tories' opposition to the minimum wage is now such a distant memory that it seems almost unreal they ever held that position.

The problem, however, is that Osborne also knows he still has widespread public support for massive cuts to social security.

In the same poll, limiting child benefit and child tax credit to two children per household picked up 68% support overall, including 56% of Labour voters. Means testing benefits for older people was popular with 66% of people, including 68% of Tories and Labour alike and 80% of Lib Dems. Counter-intuitively, the overall score was dragged down by Ukip voters, who only backed it by 61%.

The current benefits cap, set at £26,000 a year, was supported by 76% overall, including 69% of Labour voters. And, worryingly, more people supported reducing the cap to £15,000 than opposed it.

The truth is the cruel and pernicious benefits cap is already hitting families hard. Only 4% of the households subjected to it include no children and 59% are single parent families, according to the latest government figures.

So let's think about the question another way. I wonder what would happen if pollsters framed it like this: "With the largest benefit any household receives going straight to a landlord to pay rent, their income should still be cut to such an extent that families could be made homeless and their children sent to school malnourished."

Support would melt away. Because the problem with simply asking, 'do you support this or that benefit cut?' is that it is abstract, devoid of any context. So it's all too easy to agree, especially if you are someone who has never had to rely on those benefits and think you never will.

When the TUC asked people their views on welfare it got some startling responses. On average people thought 41% of the social security budget went on benefits to unemployed people, when the true figure was 3%. Similarly, they thought 27% was claimed fraudulently, while in truth it was 0.7%.

Unsurprisingly, TUC researchers also found those who knew the least about the benefits system were the most hostile.

Screaming headlines in the tabloid press - shamefully parroted by much of the rest of our media and compounded by unrepresentative and degrading TV programmes like Benefits Street - are solely designed to smear our welfare state and the people who rely on it.

These vitriolic outpourings, reminiscent of the two minutes hate from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, serve their purpose well. But, as the TUC's survey and the debate over the minimum wage show, it is not inevitable that they would carry on doing so if the public were better informed.

This government, whose predecessors claimed the sky would fall in if we legislated to guarantee minimum earnings, appears to be beginning to accept the truth about poverty pay. We need to do the same over social security, presenting facts to strangle the lies and spin, so more people come to understand the reality of what is being done to their neighbours and friends.