20/10/2015 04:42 BST | Updated 19/10/2016 06:12 BST

Could Tax Credit Changes Mark a Turning Point in Public Opinion on Welfare?


If I had a pound for every time I have read what an astute political strategist George Osborne is I might be able to plug the deficit myself. But, by cutting working tax credits he may just have overstepped the mark and given a fillip to all those increasingly worried about the slide in public opinion away from supporting the welfare state: the (now ex) Conservative voter who berated the government on Question Time for their cut to working tax credits could well be the anguished canary down the mine for the Tories.

Osborne's strategy for electoral domination has largely had three, well planned and executed goals. One, co-opt the language of Labour to become the "workers party". Two, make the Tories seem less nasty through progressive policies such as the introduction of gay marriage. Three, scapegoat, vilify, and condemn anyone who is out of work or relies on benefits. If this group votes at all, it was never going to vote Tory. Instead, Osborne has found a better use for such vulnerable people: engineering a public witch-hunt against them so that even low paid workers find themselves on the side of the Tories when it comes to questions over the size of our welfare budget.

It's a strategy that has worked extremely well, so far. The introduction of the national Living Wage (even if it isn't going to be anywhere as generous as the Living Wage itself) was seen as a masterstroke that took what would normally be seen as a core Labour policy and slapped Tory paint all over it. His budgets and new fiscal rules have run rings round Labour's shadow cabinet and strategists, leaving Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to seemingly double bluff himself over the opposition's approach to the new Charter.

But, there is a problem. The strategy of shrinking the welfare state to the size of a pea works - judged as a political plan that is, not in terms of actually helping people - so long as the voters the Tories are targeting are in work and earning enough to avoid financial worry. Indeed, the Treasury has gone to great lengths to trumpet the fact that unemployment fell under the Coalition. But, that's only because so many more people are being forced into accepting impoverishing zero hour contracts, risky moves into self employment, or taking up low paid work. Such moves might look good on the Treasury's monthly employment reports but for the real people who desperately take on this work, life isn't so grand.

That wouldn't be the case if welfare provision in all it's various guises - housing benefit, child tax credits, working tax credits, child benefit - wasn't being cut. A strong welfare state supports a strong economy and visa versa: you can't have one without the other. That's not just about ensuring that no one goes hungry when they are out of work or left uncared for when they are sick. There are thousands of workers who, because of their own personal circumstances, want to both work and need support from benefits: parents (and especially single parents), carers, students, the disabled. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 13million families will lose about £240 a year as a result of the cut in tax credits - a million families will lose £1,000 a year. As more and more people like Michelle Dorrell, who formerly associated themselves as "not one of them", begin to find that their combined income from work and welfare support no longer helps them provide for their family, their appreciation for why benefits are so important might start to shift.

That's not to say, of course, that benefits should be allowed to prop up a low wage economy. Rather, it's an acknowledgement that in order to go out to work on a flexible or part-time basis, sometimes people need additional support. Unfortunately for the Tories the idea of forcing major corporations to pay better wages to their staff or of creating fairer pay ratios is so beyond the pale that they are left in double-bind: neither providing welfare help to workers nor giving them a decent wage.

This crunch point could, however, represent an opportunity for those of us who have been worried by the gradual erosion of the welfare state that has characterised the last five years of Conservative rule. No one can pretend that hasn't happened without some degree of public support - but that's only become the norm as the result of an extremely well honed communications strategy unleashed by Osborne, Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, and Lynton Crosby. Once the evidence to support that strategy - the lived experiences of the general public - starts to unravel, public support could begin to wither.

And as people start to identify less with the Tories ideas of "strivers" and more with those that the party has done its utmost to vilify, maybe opinions of the necessity of welfare in general will start to shift. Maybe it won't just be in-work benefits that are seen as vital but all forms: Employment and Support Allowance, Personal Independence Payments, Jobseeker's. Sometimes it takes having your behaviour changed and putting yourself in someone else's shoes to change your opinion. Unwittingly, Osborne might be about to nudge a large group of people into swapping shoes with those they once condemned.