Policies such as these are more indicative of a swing towards the electoral middle-ground
November 21, 2023 5:20 pm
The Conservative Party’s strategy in recent months has felt somewhat confused. At their conference in October, it appeared that the Government were taking a more hardline approach to their policymaking. Politicians further to the right of the party, such as then-home secretary, Suella Braverman, were well-received by delegates, the contents of speeches were seemingly geared towards trying to solidify their core vote, rather than win over any detractors.
Yet come November, a Cabinet reshuffle involving the sacking of Suella Braverman, the comeback of a more-moderate former prime minister in David Cameron, and the promotions of other, less overtly right-wing ministers, lead the commentariat to wonder whether the Government was veering back towards the centre-ground.
Where the Government’s latest announcement on benefit claimants sits between these strategies is difficult to assess. The plans, whereby benefit claimants who fail to find work for more than 18 months will have to undertake work experience placements, have drawn criticism from mental health charities, but the Government insists that the number of people who “should be looking for work but are not” has risen significantly since the pandemic and therefore needs addressing.
In the mid-2010s, and during David Cameron’s first term as prime minister where “austerity” seemed to underpin almost all government policy, almost a third of the public would choose welfare benefits as one of the three most important issues facing the country, but now fewer than one in 10 say the same. Any suggestion that policies such as this, targeting those on benefits, will have anywhere near the same impact that it would have had a decade ago would be wrong, but that’s not to say that such moves wouldn’t be popular.
Indeed, around seven in 10 (70 per cent) support such a policy as the one the Government is proposing, and although that level of support rises among Conservative voters (89 per cent), implying it plays well to their base, it draws support from a majority (55 per cent) of Labour voters too. Almost half (45 per cent) of voters say the benefit system is not strict enough, rising to 60 per cent of Conservative voters, and therefore tightening the rules may well be an area which the Government can both secure their core vote and appeal to swing voters. Polling also tends to indicate that people out of work – compared to other welfare recipients such as the over-65s – are more likely to be seen as getting too much support from the benefits system.
That’s not to say the issue isn’t nuanced, or indeed, that the public think the current Government have the answers to issues facing the welfare system. Two thirds (63 per cent) say the benefits system works badly and needs reform, compared to just one in five (20 per cent) who say the opposite, yet three in five (59 per cent) say the Government is handling the issue of welfare benefits badly, including almost half (48 per cent) of Conservative voters. Of course, the shape of such reform desired may well differ by party preference, but the overwhelming feeling that the Government is handling welfare badly – along with most other policy areas, it must be said – means it’s unlikely that even this seemingly popular policy will completely turn the Government’s fortunes around on the issue.
However, for an ailing government, well behind in the polls and seemingly on course for a general election defeat, policies such as this may well bring about positive headlines. While this policy might not attract voters in and of itself, a bit of much-needed positive attention around the Government would be no bad thing, and it’s interesting to note that welfare claimants, a target of David Cameron and George Osborne in the 2010s, may be back within the Conservative’s crosshairs just as Cameron himself re-enters government.
Perhaps policies such as these are more indicative of a swing towards the electoral middle-ground, although only time will tell if that is going to be good enough to resuscitate a party presiding over a stagnant economy, overstretched public services and that many voters are just tired of after 13 years in power.
Chris Hopkins is political research director at Savanta