• Daniel Edmiston

Are the general public really tired of austerity?

Updated: Apr 13, 2018

Many are suggesting that the general public have grown of weary of public sector cuts and restrictions – that the government now has little choice but to give in and soften its position on austerity. However, the public’s appetite for certain forms of austerity appears to be more insatiable than others and this doesn’t bode well for those in most need.

Since the reduced Conservative majority and relatively strengthened Labour opposition at the snap 2017 general election, a great deal has been made of the apparent public backlash against austerity. Even Philip Hammond has conceded that the general public may be growing ‘weary of the long slog’ of public sector cuts, the continued lack of fiscal balance and the general squeeze on real-term incomes and living standards.

The principle drivers behind the general election result are complex and yet to be fully understood. However, there is emerging evidence to suggest that popular support for fiscal consolidation is waning and this may go some way to explain the shifting - or at least unpredictable - political landscape.

The latest data from the British Social Attitudes survey suggests that there has a been a partial softening of attitudes towards welfare in recent years and growing concern for certain areas of public service provision. Overall, the proportion of the general public agreeing that the government should increase taxes and spend more rose from 32% to 48% between 2010 and 2016.

Looking at specific policy domains, support for more government spending on education and healthcare services has increased since 2006 and there has even been a modest increase in support for greater spending on unemployment benefits during the same period. In many ways, this is exactly what we might expect. Research on public attitudes suggests there tends to be a thermostatic relationship between welfare activity and the support this receives from the general public. As governments increase public social spending, support for this wanes. Similarly, as governments reduce public social spending, public opinion tends to move in the opposite direction. So what options does this leave the Conservative government with?

Whilst the Spring Statement is not intended to offer any substantive transformation in public sector spending, forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibilities are unlikely to bode well for future public finances. Expected to respond and set out spending priorities ahead of the Autumn Budget, this leaves the Conservative government with little room to play. On one hand, the general public appear to be weary of austerity. On the other, there is a Conservative imperative to move towards ‘fiscal balance’ – at least according to the somewhat arbitrary principles imposed by Osbourne and continued by Hammond. Perhaps then, we might expect future policy decisions on the tax-benefit system to temper cuts and prioritise public spending on those most negatively affected by welfare austerity over the last 8 years.

Unfortunately though, such hopes rest on an overly optimistic reading of recent shifts in public opinion. Whilst there has been an ostensible softening of public attitudes towards welfare and reduced support for cuts to government spending, we should nonetheless be cautious to characterise this as a thermostatic ‘backlash’ or wholesale rejection of the ‘austerity consensus’ that emerged from 2010 onwards.

Firstly, these shifts are not as high or pronounced as might be expected given the swingeing effects and coverage of austerity measures implemented since 2010. And secondly, critique of public social spending has principally manifested itself in a concern for the integrity of universal public services such as education and healthcare, rather than the (re-) distributive or integrative functions of social security provision and entitlement. For example, there is growing ambivalence towards or disregard for the role of the government in ‘reducing income differences between the rich and the poor’, ‘providing decent housing for those who can’t afford it’ and ‘providing a decent standard of living for the unemployed’.

Where a 'softening' of welfare attitudes is observable and directed towards low-income groups, this appears to be more selective than all encompassing. For example, there has been a recent decrease in skepticism towards those claiming benefits: the proportion of the general public believing that most people ‘on the dole are fiddling’ fell from 35% to 22% between 2010 and 2016 (its lowest level in 30 years). However, the general public remain largely indifferent to increased spending on welfare benefits for the poor and a substantial majority continue to agree that most unemployed people could find a job if they wanted to. This is in spite of increased child poverty, foodbank use and homelessness across the UK.

In many ways, this is typical of the consistently equivocal politics of social policy and the high degree of ambivalence in support for certain aspects of the UK welfare state. But underlying this contradiction - or I suppose, selective weariness with austerity - is the enduring distinction between deserving and undeserving beneficiaries of social (security) assistance that has fuelled the welfare austerity agenda from 2010 onwards.

Within the contemporary context, the deservingness of benefit recipients continues to mediate public support for social security spending. However, it appears to do so in more discerning ways than it used to. As ‘austerity bites’, the general public appear more willing and perhaps able to recognise that some are indeed correctly (and deservedly) receiving low-income social security.

Despite this, weariness with the extent of austerity has not undermined dominant policy thinking and welfare discourse - ‘individualistic explanations about the moral failings of poor people’ continue to prevail in accounts of economic inequalities and welfare reforms proposed to address social disadvantage. Within this context, the rise of anti-welfare commonsense directed towards low-income ostensibly ‘undeserving’ benefit claimants is entirely reconcilable with qualified support for ‘deserving’ welfare recipients and concern about the integrity of ‘universal’ public services.

We should therefore be cautious to celebrate or herald in a post-austerity era.

Even if the tide is turning on public hostility towards welfare spending, such shifts are nonetheless partial, selective and rooted in the same moral and administrative distinctions that divide worthy and unworthy targets of welfare austerity. This is unlikely to help those most vulnerable to the causes and consequences of rising poverty and structural inequality.

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