There are lots of issues that people care about. There are even more issues that people have an opinion on if you ask them. Far more rare, though, are the issues that swing voters from one party to another.
Every so often political circumstances, scandals, demographic changes or other factors will transform an issue someone has an opinion on into a vote-winner.
Welfare has undergone just such a transformation in the last couple of years.
The newest evidence comes in the most valuable format. It isn’t Conservative Party research, or third party polling by the media, or even Lord Ashcroft’s work – it’s a leaked poll briefing carried out for the other side. The speaker was James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, and he was presenting his research to a TUC seminar on “Winning the argument on welfare”. It isn’t the kind of bash where there’s anything to gain by soft-soaping the reputation of the Government’s welfare reforms, so we can be sure there’s no groupthink going on to paint a picture that is unduly rosey.
Given the speaker, and the context, the content of the presentation is all the more remarkable. As the Standard reported yesterday:
He warned: “The challenge is very severe.” Voters on average backed the reforms being driven through by David Cameron’s Government by about two to one — but among Labour-Conservative swing voters the divide was a huge 64 per cent to nine per cent. Worse, those voters who sided with Mr Miliband by opposing the reforms were mainly confined to a minority who saw themselves as centre-Left or “very Left”, including Mirror readers, Guardian readers, the unemployed, and existing Labour voters. In a secret recording of the event, passed to the Standard, he went on: “If you look at politically salient target groups those numbers get worse.”
There’s more that hasn’t so far appeared in the press. I’ve now seen a more extended transcript of the leaked recording, and four points jump out which no-one has so far reported:
1. Voters see welfare as a moral issue
While the public may be sympathetic to the need to control the deficit, they are far more strongly moved by the case that welfare reform is about fairness and morality. As Morris said:
“The weakest argument for welfare reform is that “we haven’t got the money left…if you think that there are people who ought not to deserve benefits getting benefits then you don’t think that should happen even if you had all the money in the world you still don’t think you should give something to people who don’t deserve it”
This is significant, because moral cases – politics from the gut and the heart – are far harder to persuade people to abandon, and far more likely to motivate them to vote, than arguments based on statistics or spreadsheets. If Labour hope they can argue that austerity isn’t necessary and that voters will stop supporting welfare reform as a result, they are sorely mistaken. IDS’ case is more resilient to attack, and more powerful at the ballot box, than some have previously suggested.
2. Welfare reform isn’t a standalone issue, it boosts our wider approval ratings
We already know from the Standard’s report that welfare reform is popular. Among the general populace, it has 53 per cent support to 27 per cent Opposition, and according to Morris that grows as you look at target groups:
“[Among] likely Voters it’s 59% to 27% support. Amongst Conservative/UKIP swing voters 84% to 7%. Amongst Conservative/Lib Dem swing voters 77% to 5%. Amongst Labour/Conservative swing voters 64% to 9%.”
All of which is encouraging in itself. Even better is the news, so far unreported, that as well as agreeing with welfare reform, people feel it is sufficiently compelling that it increases their support for the Government:
“In the poll what we do is we measure at the beginning how people feel towards their [The Government’s] overall. We exposed them to the Government side of the argument and our potential side of the argument and measure it again. This is just looking at their initial view of the Government’s approach and then the way they feel about it after they’ve heard all of those George Osborne arguments I read out and you see this massive jump in people’s warmth towards the Government’s messaging. To warm towards the Government’s approach. So people start off net -21%. 21% people more people feel cool than warm and it flips to now: by 66% to 33% people are feeling more warm towards their changes than cool.” [my emphasis]
Of course, the election won’t just be about welfare. Plenty of other issues will vie for public attention and this drastic flip in approval ratings relies on being able to communicate the key arguments about welfare reform. However, Morris’ research demonstrates quite how powerful a campaign tool welfare reform has become. It’s the perfect political issue – morally right, financially practical and vote-winning, all at the same time.
3. Labour’s arguments on welfare have no impact
By contrast, this is a nightmare battlefield for Labour. They – and the unions – don’t like welfare reform in principle (see Liam Byrne’s sacking earlier this week for being too sympathetic to the idea), they don’t agree the deficit needs to be reduced and to top it all off their messages cut no ice with voters.
Morris is blunt in his assessment:
“Our [Labour’s] arguments, in terms of overall approach, in terms of people’s overall support levels didn’t make that much difference. The poll is not going to show ‘magic bullet – this is how to solve it’. Why? Lots of reasons – partly our messages are diffuse and this poll tests a range of options and partly because it’s a really, really hard debate.”
They can’t afford to abandon the issue entirely, because a well-targeted Conservative campaign around it would leave them looking like the Light Brigade after a bad day’s charging. Nor do they have a message that cuts through when they try to respond.
4. With the right argument, support can go even higher
The Morris presentation also has some suggestions for future Conservative campaigners. Communicating the key messages around welfare reform is evidently important, but one policy in particular supercharges the effect on voters – the benefits cap:
“Then you’ve got the benefits cap which is like the ‘diamond tip’ that’s what pushes the numbers [of people supporting the welfare reforms] from 70% to 90%”
That’s in keeping with the idea this is a moral issue – the benefits cap is based on the idea that it is unfair and wrong for someone to be better off on benefits than in work. The figures he cites in the quote appear to be ballpark, produced as he is speaking, but the conclusion is clear. Hammering home the message on welfare reform is powerful, hammering it home by headlining on the benefits cap is even stronger.