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Polls show support for George Osborne’s 1 per cent cap on benefits

By Peter Hoskin
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Oh look, the Welfare Uprating Bill is published today. That’s the Bill which formalises the Government’s plan to increase many benefits by only 1 per cent a year, rather than by the rate of inflation. It’s the Bill which has given us what will surely be one of the defining dividing lines of this Parliament, as well as of the next election.

Which probably helps explain why today’s papers feature not one but two polls examining the Bill’s provisions. Let’s start with the more eye-catching of the pair.

The Populus poll commissioned by the Conservatives, and written up in the Sun, is wholly encouraging for the Government. The tenor of it is captured by its opening question. Respondents are asked to say which of two propositions is closer to their own views. The first is broadly the Tories’ approach:

“The best way for the Government to help working people on low incomes is to let them keep more of the money they earn in the first place, by taking less in income tax — and by freezing Fuel Duty.”

And the second Labour’s:

“The best way for the Government to help working people on low incomes is to continue to take the same amount of income tax as before, but give them some money back in the form of tax credits.”

And the results? 81 per cent of people are more in favour of the first than the second — and it’s a level of support that carries across genders, regions, political affiliations and social classes. 81 per cent of women prefer option one; 79 per cent of the least well-off DE social grade; 82 per cent of public sector workers; 76 per cent of Labour voters; and so on and so on.

Next, the poll puts three further statements to respondents, and asks them whether they agree or disagree. Here are the questions and results in graphic form:

Graph 1

Graph 2

Graph 3

It’s worth noting that all of these questions imply, as is true, that the cap will affect in-work benefits as well as out-of-work benefits — and still support for the Government’s proposals is strong.

So how does all that square against the ComRes poll featured on the front page of the Independent, under the headline “Less than half back Osborne on benefits”? Isn’t that altogether less encouraging for the Chancellor?

Well, the first thing to note is that even the ComRes poll shows more support for Osborne’s policy than there is opposition to it. It asks one question: whether respondents agree or disagree with the statement that “The Government is right to limit the rise on benefits and tax credits to only 1 per cent for the next three years”. And the overall result is that 49 per cent of people agree, against 43 per cent who disagree. Those groups who don’t support the measure (e.g. 57 per cent of 18-24 year-olds disagree with it) are more than balanced out by those who do (e.g. 56 per cent of C2s).

But why are the levels of support lower than in the first poll? Some of it may be down to different basic methodologies: Populus’s is an online poll with a sample size of 2,053 people; ComRes’s was done by telephone, with a sample size of 1,000. But I suspect the main reason is the wording of the questions. The Independent’s ComRes poll asks a blunt question: do you agree with this vaguely bad-sounding thing that’s about to happen? Whereas the Tories’ Populus poll provides more context: deficit reduction, wage growth, etc. The Populus poll, in a small way, does something to inform its respondents.

True, the picture becomes muddier when we consider last week’s polls on the matter from Ipsos MORI and YouGov, but my former colleague Jonathan Jones has already written a useful post suggesting how they may not be as bad for Mr Osborne as they first appeared. Suffice to say that the main point from all of these polls is that context matters — and that will suit the Government just fine. After all, it’s not as though they’re going implement this policy without arguing for it.


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