It is a factoid universally acknowledged that a voter in possession of a good job must be in search of a scrounger to bait. Such is the settled reading of public opinion on benefits, not only inside No 10 but also within Labour’s Blairite wing.
When the government’s own figures revealed last week that George Osborne‘s benefit squeeze will plunge 200,000 children into poverty, the political class just rolled its eyes in salute to the electorate’s supposedly ungenerous mood.
To the proudly hard-headed party operator, the Bishop of Liverpool’s warnings about inner cities facing “atrophy and death” only underline that the cause of welfare entitlements is now the exclusive preserve of the professionally unworldly.
There is something in the view that middle Britain became more Scrooge-like over the recent past.
Until the 1990s, British Social Attitudes used to find that the majority feared that inadequate benefits were causing hardship. Such concerns, however, steadily gave way to a view of jobseekers as subsidised layabouts, a view that by 2011 the BSA records as prevailing by a crushing three-to-one margin.
Campaigners can point indignantly at the £71 a week the unemployed are expected to subsist on, and can point out, too, that the hardening of hearts took place only after New Labour aped Tory language about families who won’t play by the rules – yet none of this makes their job easy.
A Guardian/ICM poll registers a narrowing of Labour’s overall lead but also heartening signs that the tide may be turning on welfare – and that the poor-bashing right may have overplayed its hand.
Mr Osborne is legislating to decouple benefits from living costs, on the basis that this is only fair, seeing as workers’ wages are also being squeezed.
So confident were the Conservatives about the appeal of this argument that they have plastered it on billboards.
Our poll, however, suggests that only 36% of voters agree.
A majority of 58% agree instead with the case Ed Miliband has been making about the unfair effect on workers whose pay is topped up by tax credits.
Disregarding warnings from New Labour ultras about a Tory trap, the Labour leader has bravely opposed the Osborne assault full-on.
Airy promises to cut welfare without spelling out how always poll well. But since the Osborne plan was set out in December, other surveys with different questions have also found far greater resistance to his specific proposals. And if the introduction of the universal credit fails to go smoothly, 2013 could be a year of great turmoil that sees the debate about welfare move away from slogans about skivers and towards questions of ministerial competence – and the conventional Westminster wisdom that says the Tories can only win on welfare would then come entirely unstuck.