Welfare needs reform. Of this there can be no doubt. Something like a third of government spending goes on welfare. Last year, this amounted to nearly 12% of GDP. For an economy boasting more people in work than ever before, this clearly represents a failure of government policy. Not just of this government, but of successive governments down the years.

Public opinion on the need for a tougher welfare measures began to harden well before the 2008 global financial crisis. In later years, New Labour was accused of courting the votes of those on benefits by inflating state payments to them. As austerity became official government policy with the arrival of the coalition government in 2010, a formal assault on ‘welfarism’ began.

TV programmes like ‘Benefits Street’ (2014) provided a cultural backdrop to a declaration of war on the “deserving poor.” Most infamously, the so-called “Bedroom Tax” (Spare Room Subsidy 2013) penalised recipients of housing benefits if one or more of their bedrooms were “unoccupied.” For the Tories, the uneconomical obsession with driving down the deficit superseded the need to protect the most vulnerable from the ongoing financial fallout.

Earlier this year, YouGov reported on the “complicated” attitudes the British people had towards welfare. Broadly, the report found continued public support for cuts to welfare, albeit with some significant caveats. The report’s findings are summarised as follows:

Public attitudes to welfare are complicated, sometimes contradictory and it is easy to cherry pick polling results to show the public support or oppose big cuts to benefits, depending on one’s views. At the simplest level people like the idea of benefit cuts because they think they go to people who don’t deserve them and who haven’t contributed to them. Exactly who they imagine these people are is more difficult to say, since if you ask about most groups who recieve benefits people oppose cuts.

 

So, overall 38% of people say cuts to benefits have gone too far, 23% they they are about right, 24% would go even further. Asked about the level of benefits and the number of people who can claim them 45% say benefits are too generous, 40% they they are too low (23%) or about right (17%); 57% say too many people are eligible, 30% that too few (19%) or about the right number of people are eligible (11%). Looking at those figures people seem to be pretty pro-cut.

 

Asked about individual groups of people who receive benefits though and the public suddenly become much more charitable. Only 4% think retired people on the state pension get too much in benefits, only 9% think disabled people do, only 12% think people in low paid work do. 19% think working people with children get too much in benefits, but 33% think they should get more. Opinion on unemployed people is the most evenly balanced, with 28% saying they get too much in benefits, 24% too little, 31% about right. The only group where people come down heavily on the side of too much money being spent on benefits is better off retired people… the group that politicians never cut benefits from because they vote.

 

This raises the question of why people think benefits are too high and too widely spread if they don’t think the unemployed, pensioners, parents, disabled people or the working poor get too much. I hardly think when people talk about benefit cuts they are thinking of winter fuel payments, rather I expect the support comes from the continuing belief that lots of benefits go to categories not asked about like “people who aren’t really disabled”, “people who could work but can’t”, “asylum seekers” and so on.

Navigating this complexity would be difficult for any government, and probably more difficult than normal for a government grappling with Brexit, as well as a deficit obsession. But this polling was conducted in March, before the dramatic general election of June this year, when the nation appeared to begin to turn against austerity.

More important, this polling was carried out well in advance of the landmark introduction of ‘Universal Credit’ – Iain Duncan Smith’s brainchild, which has been six years in the making. Rather than picking off certain aspects of the welfare budget in small, bitesize chunks, the government is now attempting to practically deal with the welfare budget in one fell swoop.

This means there is enormous pressure on the government not to mess things up, or to punish people punitively. So far, the government hasn’t exactly handled the situation well. Labour has already forced the government to abandon its draconion 55p-a-minute phone line, designed to allow welfare claimants the enormous privilege of checking on the status of their Universal Credit application. Pathetically, the government also had to force its MPs to abstain from voting on a Labour motion to “pause” the Universal Credit roll-out.

Most damaging of all, though, is the six-week wait many claimants will have between applying for Universal Credit and actually receiving any money. Horror stories are already abounding. The economically Liberal Adam Smith Institute has calculated that UC claimants are, on average, £150 in arrears on their rent. Even the father of UC, Iain Duncan Smith, has called for the waiting time to be “slashed.”

Meanwhile, food bank usage is soaring in an apparent reaction to the delays. The national roll-out is still some weeks away. It is timed to coincide roughly with Christmas for some reason. A nation that has been ravaged by seven years of austerity and now faces the prospect of a looming economic downturn is hardly a nation that is likely to greet with good cheer the coming devastation which Universal Credit will wreak.

Dark days are ahead. True, most people want welfare reforms. And true, the Tories retain considerable support in the country. But UC is a nuclear strike on the most vulnerable, and all of us will see the fallout. If the Tories are not careful, Universal Credit will be as big a disaster for them and the country as Margaret Thatcher’s infamous Poll Tax turned out to be.

Sam Stopp

Sam Stopp is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Brent and is the Chair of The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness. He has written regularly for LabourList, LeftFootForward, Progress Online and Open Labour. He tweets @CllrStopp.