The misreported death of solidarity in Britain

It’s rare for journalists to be waiting for social research with baited breath, pens poised and column inches left blank in anticipation. But the annual release of the ‘British Social Attitudes’ series does just that, a testament to just how interested we are in what we think about one another (and to cheap journalism…). The publication of this year’s figures the other week was no exception, prompting headlines about ‘hardening’ public attitudes in Britain to those on benefits.

But the widely reported death of solidarity with people on benefits is not as it seems. After the adrenaline rush of the new figures has ebbed, I here go back over the figures (and a few other recent studies) to look at what people think, what has changed, and what this means for the politics of the benefits system. 

All is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds

We need to start by looking at what prompted headlines such as the BBC’s, “UK attitudes on…welfare ‘toughening’”There are four sets of findings here: about spending more/less, about government’s responsibility to support people, about whether claimants are deserving, and about the negative consequences of the benefits system – I’ll come back to the last of these in a post next week.

On spending, there has been a sharp decline in the number of people saying that we should raise taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits (from 62% in 1997 to 36% in 2011). This has been matched by falls in the proportion saying we should spend more on ‘welfare benefits for the poor’ (43% in 2003, 28% today), and when looking in particular at disabled people, carers, those working on low incomes, single parents, and retired people. This led the NatCen chief executive (quoted in the BBC story) to say:

“One thing that we’ve seen is that even where groups are seen as perhaps more deserving – so retired people, disabled people – again for the first time since 2008 we’ve seen that the number of people who are prepared to see more money go on disability benefits has actually fallen.”

This was perhaps the lead finding, but two other sets of findings were used to back up the general tenor of the stories.  There has been a decline in people’s belief that the government has a responsibility to ensure unemployed people have enough to live on (81% in 2001 to 59% in 2011). And the perceived deservingness of claimants has also fallen as shown in the Figure below.  However, quite where the Daily Mail find that “increasing numbers believe disability benefit claimants have been wrongly classified as unable to work” is beyond me.

The surprising resilience of British solidarity

What I want to argue, though, is that this picture is grossly misleading. What’s particularly surprising, in fact, is just how resilient British support for deserving benefits claimants is – and how its simply not true that a brute slashing of benefit levels for deserving claimants is popular.

First of all, let’s go back to those figures on spending. Remember that we hear on a daily basis the claim that public spending is out of control, that we are on the brink of a debt crisis etc.  Despite this, 36% of people think we should increase taxes and spend more on health/education/benefits, while 55% think we should keep them the same – only 6% believe we should reduce taxes and spend less! Much of this reflects the popularity of health and education; there are mixed views on spending on ‘welfare benefits for the poor’ in general (38% think less spending, 32% want to keep it the same, and 29% want more spending – figures from rather than the BSA report).

But this conceals wide differentiation between different types of claimants. In fact, even in 2011 an absolute majority is in favour of more spending on benefits for (i) ‘disabled people who cannot work’; (ii) ‘people who care for those who are sick or disabled’; (iii) parents who work on very low incomes’; and (iv) ‘retired people’. These proportions have gone down about 10 percentage points since 2008 – but given the pressures on spending, it is amazing that majorities still support higher spending.  It is only for single parents (where 29% want more spending, again a 10 percentage point fall) and unemployed people (where 15% want more spending, flat since 2004) that there is no majority in favour of more spending.

It’s therefore simply not true for the Daily Telegraph to say there is “a high degree of public support for further cuts in welfare spending. Where once the Tories were regarded as cruel and heartless for wanting to slash benefits, it now seems that they can’t be tough enough.”  [Credit to Allister Heath in the Telegraph for his particularly nuanced take].

A very similar story can be seen when looking at the government’s responsibility to ensure adequate living standards. In 1998, 80% of people thought it was the Government should be mainly responsible for ‘ensuring that people have enough to live on if they become sick for a long time or disabled.’ In 2010, this figure is – 84%. This hardly shows that there has been a fall in public support for the ‘genuinely’ disabled.

Instead, the fall in the belief in government’s responsibility has primarily been for unemployed people, which sank between 2003 and 2011 (the question wasn’t asked between then, so we don’t quite know when it changed). My feeling here is that this is following rather than leading policy – when we got into the recession, people realised just how abysmal the safety net for unemployed people was, and how much they had to rely on their savings and their families (both of which were themes in the media coverage at the start of the recession). So it’s no wonder that the belief that this was a government responsibility fell, nor that this fall was particularly sharp among higher occupations.

The real issue in public attitudes

The issue in British public attitudes is not that people have lost their support for deserving claimants – it’s that we’re more likely to think that the balance between deserving and undeserving claimants has gone awry. Moreover, there’s nothing new about this; it actually dates from the time of New Labour, and was particularly pronounced among Labour voters, as I discuss in this paper.

Deservingness is an issue we’ve covered on the blog many times before – see these posts.  And this is a theme that I’ll come back to repeatedly over the coming months, as I explore the findings on the stigma of claiming benefits in a report (with Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney) coming out in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, there are obvious reasons to be concerned about public attitudes to benefit claimants – but also signs that Britons have not lost their feeling for their fellow citizens completely. And next week I’ll look at how this relates to some other research on attitudes to the benefits system across time and place.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at
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12 Responses to The misreported death of solidarity in Britain

  1. Great post. Thank you so much. Good to look into the fine detail of the data.

    2 thoughts spring to mind;

    1. Perhaps the media don’t have that much impact on opinion on these matters.

    2. There is also the important question within the deserving/undeserving distinction about the extent to which “ordinary working people” (their wording) get a fair share of national wealth. The ‘no’ answer to that question has remained very high. Not sure how this relates but I have a hunch that it does.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks Thomas. In terms of 1, it’s a really interesting question, and definitely more complicated than people expect. We go into this a bit in the report that’s coming out soon, but there’s definitely more to be done here.

      In terms of 2, see the link under Charlotte’s comment below – there’s definitely two different sets of trends here!

  2. Phil Whittington says:

    Surveys like this that ask the same questions (or similar) over time are fascinating. It’s hard to strip out, I guess, the extent to which the changes are borne of shifting social mores, compared to a decline in people’s financial circumstances over the same period. (and those two factors are themselves linked, I’m sure)

    Do you (or does anyone) know how BSA addresses the problem of respondents not telling the truth? I think people today are wont to downplay their antipathy towards certain groups receiving benefits (even if they’re assured of anonymity), simply out of good manners. This “Tory shy” factor, if you will, is not necessarily a constant skew across time. If it were, it would be safer to ignore it when inferring the trend.

    Take the general 43%/28% figures about support for spending more on benefits for the poor between 2003-11: my intuition is that many people are more bitter today about their tax being spent on others while they struggle, but they can probably justify that bitterness less to themselves because there’s a much better “excuse” for being poor in 2011. I.e. in a landscape of economic growth and opportunity (2003), you may be more cavalier about your tax bill while being happier, paradoxically, to lament the unemployed, because you feel there are jobs they should be taking. If anything, I reckon, the ’03 figure is an underestimate (i.e. they’re happy to grumble about benefit payments, but they’re also willing to vote for a govt that maintains them), and the 2011 one an overestimate (it’s hard to criticise the poor right now, but we’ll vote Tory because we’re struggling ourselves.)

    A related measure would be the depth of feeling. Not in a crude “disagree/ strongly disagree” kind of way, but looking at how buffeted people’s feelings are by events (either on the news or in their own lives) or by political speeches. It always amazes me that parties achieve a bounce in the polls, more often than not, after being on the news at their party conference. In order to gain power and effect the changes it wants, a political party need only mould public opinion for a short time before an election. *Firmness* of belief, one way or the other, is crucial.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Interesting discussion of this. There’s a longstanding discussoin about what attitudes ‘really’ are; I’m not sure that I’d regard an inhibition against being hostile to benefits claimants as ‘not telling the truth’, as much as an influence on attitudes. The really complex point you draw attention to is that there’s a lot of simultaneous currents of feeling here at different depths, and these can be channelled to the foreground or the background by political activists and the media (as well as a host of other social factors). The changes are not so much in these currents, as in which of them are foregrounded for political ends.

      Whether there’s a way of getting a political bounce by being more positive about benefits, though, is the really tricky question – I think that a ‘new Beveridge’ moment is possible, but risky…

      • Phil Whittington says:

        I hadn’t thought of it as different currents being brought to the fore, but I think that’s exactly right, and expressed better than I would have managed 🙂

  3. Charlotte Cavaille says:

    I stand by my interpretation of the data: resilience of a structural support for government intervention (redistribution from), decrease in positive attitudes towards Welfare recipients (redistribution to). The issue in the latter case is whether you think concern about deservingness is exogenous and “legitimate” or endogenous and a “pretext” to cut transfers to the poor…

  4. gfmurphy101 says:

    Reblogged this on gfmurphy101 and commented:
    Amazing how the media try to put their own ‘ideological spin’ on everything! I wonder if someone done similar analysis on the Irish Media what would it show!

  5. Pingback: The positive and negative consequences of the welfare state | Inequalities

  6. Pingback: While benefits stigma is undoubtedly pervasive across society, its nature and origins tend to be profoundly misconstrued | British Politics and Policy at LSE

  7. Pingback: The surprising truth about benefits stigma in Britain | Inequalities

  8. Ben Baumberg says:

    There’s a further (April 2013) report on British Social Attitudes data by Clery et al here, including a figure of Table 1.2 above (p40 of the report). Nothing radically new, but a helpful compendium of the BSA data all the same.

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