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After sticking his foot in his mouth last week – both with his speech about how great the benefit cuts are, and his attempt at using Estuary English rather than Received Pronunciation to deliver it to unimpressed workers at Morrisons – he has pronounced himself “in tune” with what the majority of the country thinks about those cuts.
He might be right; most people might think, as he does, that there is a large amount of social security fraud and the cuts will force people to get off their backsides and go to work (never mind, for a moment, the fact that the jobs don’t exist because those places are full of people on Mandatory Work Activity, making oodles of money for Poundland or whatever other companies are still clinging to that albatross of a scheme).
It begs a few questions.
Firstly: How knowledgeable is the British public on this matter?
Radio 4’s The Now Show had a few things to say about this, way back in November 2011, and the observations shine a bright light on the subject:
“There’s been a lot of fuss that THE PEOPLE haven’t been given a say, but then the media have a very schizophrenic attitude to THE PEOPLE.
“You must have noticed that newspapers regularly run stories that go: ’70 per cent of adults can’t read a bus timetable’ or ‘Half of the population are unable to multiply 50 by 17’.
“They’re forever running surveys that show that people can’t add up, or don’t know the name of the Foreign Secretary, or the year World War II broke out, and then suddenly the next day, the same papers go: ‘It’s time voters had a say on the debt restructuring of the Eurozone!’
“‘Why, oh why, can’t they let the people decide on the feasibility of operating a single currency in an economic area of widely differing levels of productivity?’
“Because yesterday you said most people can’t read a bus timetable, that’s why – you can’t have it both ways. It doesn’t make sense!
“A lot of the reason for this confusion, of course, is that often people’s opinions depend on how you phrase the question. “If you go: ‘Should we cut public sector jobs to save money?’ people say yes, but if you go: ‘Should we cut public sector jobs such as airport border officials to save money?’ They… still say yes, but when it goes wrong they claim they didn’t and blame someone else.”
That’s a very good point. The answer really does depend on the question. In this case, OUR question must be: Has the Conservative Party been ‘voodoo’ polling again?
I refer you to the Vox article that covered this, back in December 2012:
Today I was made aware of another survey that attempts to manipulate the responses it receives by cleverly-worded “leading” questions – except I’m referring to a survey on the Conservative Party website, so neither the questions nor their wording are particularly clever.
“We’re interested in your view about the fairness of our benefit reforms” is the overture. I have to admit that, on reading this, I was overjoyed. At last a chance to let the Tories know how wrong-headed their approach has been! That they are hitting the vulnerable in society – and that their policies are in fact leading to the deaths of many of the most vulnerable. Fat chance.
“Conservatives in Government have made a decision that we will support people who work hard and that work will be rewarded.” This was the snap back to reality. Anyone reading this has to see that it’s a propaganda exercise. The only other response is to ask, when is this support going to happen?
“Labour say that benefits should go up by more than average wages – even though it will be the taxes of people in work that pays for this increase.” Whoa, whoa, WHOA, wait. The Conservatives aren’t about to lower the base rate of taxes (only the top rate, for the benefit of their extremely rich friends). Nor are they about to increase taxes. This is disingenous and manipulative. They are trying to say that their decision to depress rises in benefit payments is reasonable because it is in line with employers’ (and let’s remember the government is itself an employer) unreasonable decisions to keep their employees’ pay down (and we’ll get onto their own pay rises in a moment).
“We don’t think this is fair for the following reasons…
“1. A real terms increase would have meant that benefits increased more than the average salary. Since 2007, benefits have increased by 20% whilst salaries have only increased by 10%. If the Government continued to increase benefits at a higher rate than salaries, this would not be fair on working people. The same working people who pay the taxes which fund the benefits to begin with.” Hogwash. Since 2007, benefits have increased in line with inflation and, as a result, people on benefits have been able to survive. Salaries may well have increased by only 10 per cent. I recall my own pay – before I became self-employed. Month after month, year after year, I saw my disposable income being whittled away in a series of poor pay increases, until I reached the point where continuing to work at the same company would put me into debt. That is the harsh reality of the British workplace in the 21st century, under the Tory-led Coalition.
“2. Working people are having their taxes cut. Changes to the personal allowance mean that working people will pay less tax and will keep more of their earnings. Anyone in work and receiving benefits will gain more from paying less tax, than what they lose from benefits not increasing in real terms.” This is simply untrue. 60 per cent of households attacked by the Tory-led government’s cuts to benefits are working households.
“3. To increase benefits in real terms would have meant borrowing more money. This Government is reducing borrowing and cutting the deficit. Labour would borrow more and add more debt to fund unlimited benefit rises. The Conservatives don’t believe that we should burden future generations with our debts in order to live beyond our means today.” The Conservatives are in fact borrowing more money now than Labour would have, if they had won the 2010 election – £212 billion more than planned, by 2015 alone. Using an expected increase in borrowing as an excuse to deprive the most vulnerable of their ability to survive adequately is plain disgusting.
“Have Your Say on Benefits
“We’re interested in what your think about benefits. That’s why we’re asking you whether or not you support two fundamental principles upon which our welfare policies are founded – many will say they don’t but many will also be in favour. Your responses will tell us what the majority think.
“Please also leave your comments.”
Here’s the first question. Remember what I said at the top, about the way the writers manipulate the wording of these things:
“Should benefits increase more than wages?”
See what I mean? The only possible answer to that is “No” – because they shouldn’t! That doesn’t mean that Tory welfare policy is right, though. It means employers aren’t paying their workers well enough (as proven by my own experience). Next question:
“Do you think it’s fair that people can claim more in benefits that (sic) the average family earns through going to work?” Again, the only reasonable answer is “No” – but again it doesn’t mean Tory welfare policy is right. It means this question – like the first – has been carefully worded to prevent anyone responding from giving an unwanted answer.
Never mind – there’s a box for comments, in which respondents may explain their answers. Here’s what I wrote:
“Your questions are slanted to produce a particular set of answers, I notice. My answer to the first is that they should increase in line with inflation. Wages should do that as well. The simple fact is that the majority of employers in this country seem to see fit to fill their own pockets with cash while depriving their workers. It is THIS imbalance that needs to be redressed. Company bosses have given themselves generous pay rises totalling 700 per cent over the last 20 years, while employees’ wages have risen by an average of just 27 per cent in the same period. That is completely unfair – and the reason it is possible for people on benefits to make more money than the average family earns by going to work.
“You don’t make work pay by cutting benefits to the point where people can’t afford the necessities of life – you do it by actually paying people in work enough money to make doing their job worthwhile.
“I don’t think it’s fair for people in benefits to have more money than the average family earns through work, but the answer is not to cut benefits; you must stop the ruthless exploitation of working people by fatcat business bosses. It isn’t rocket science. It’s common sense.”
So you can see that the Conservative Party has a poor record when it comes to polling. They ask leading questions in order to get the result they want, and then push it at the public as proof that they’re right.
In fact, in a comment, Vox reader Janet Renwick said: “Obviously the results of this will be triumphantly waved in our faces to show that the ‘Government’ is ‘in touch’ with the population. This is evil and designed to split the population and take sympathy away from the people most in need.”
How prophetic she was.
But what do the British people really think, and is it out of tune with the facts?
Let’s go to a TUC poll of people’s beliefs about benefits, published in January.
This found that, on average, people think that 41 per cent of the entire social security (welfare if you like) budget goes on benefits to unemployed people.
The true figure is just THREE per cent.
It also found that, on average, people think that 27 per cent of the social security (welfare) budget is claimed fraudulently.
The government’s own figure is 0.7 per cent.
You can see why Osborne said he’s “in tune” with what people are thinking. What people are thinking is inaccurate, but because it serves his purposes, he’ll support that – against the facts – every chance he gets.
But that’s no basis on which to justify changing the system. You wouldn’t convict somebody in court because “most people” think a defendant committed a crime, would you? No, we have a legal system that – at least nominally – is concerned with the FACTS of a case. At crown court, juries totalling 12 people are called in to examine the evidence provided, and determine those facts. They don’t have newspaper accounts pushed into their hands before being sent into the jury room to read those second- or third-hand accounts and then make up their minds!
So, if the Coalition government wants a proper debate on this issue, let’s have one.
Let’s have publication of the government’s own figures on the benefit bill, including the total amount paid on unemployment benefits, in real money terms and as a percentage of the whole budget; and the total percentage of the budget that is lost to fraudulent claims.
Let’s have proper discussion, with other facts provided as and when necessary.
And let’s have proper reporting of it in the media. There’s no reason for organisations like the BBC to rely on what politicians say, when the facts are available.
If Osborne is “in tune” with anything at all, it is a fantasy.
That’s no basis on which to ruin people’s lives.