The Welfare State – The main social policy battleground in the general election?


In this post, Owen Davis discusses the hotly contested area of welfare policy in the run up to the 2015 General Election. Data around public attitudes to the welfare state are presented and it is argued that each of the three main political parties need to convince the public that they have the best strategies for reforming the benefits system. The post concludes by suggesting that there is plenty to fight for in the run up to May and that the welfare state is likely to remain one of the key social policy battlegrounds.

Welfare Policy and Public Attitudes

The welfare state remains one of the most politically sensitive areas of social policy and will undoubtedly be high on the agenda in the upcoming general election. The main political parties will each compete to offer their own visions for reform which appeal to their core demographics of voters. Attitudes towards the benefits system vary across the political spectrum, however two things are certain about the general state of public opinion. First, the public are deeply suspicious of welfare claimants. This is demonstrated in recent analysis by Baumberg and colleagues[i] (see figure 1), which shows that negative attitudes towards those traditionally viewed as ‘needy’ and ‘deserving’ of public support (e.g. the unemployed, sick and disabled people) have persisted and even hardened over the past twenty-five years. Specifically, figure 1 shows that while there have been some fluctuations in attitudes over the past ten years, generally over 35% of surveyed respondents attributed the need to laziness and more than 25% did not view the needy as deserving of support. A second and related point is that the British public have little faith in the benefits system. There are widespread beliefs that the welfare state encourages idleness and allows those who should be in work to have a ‘free ride’ at the expense of taxpayers. As shown in figure 2, data from the British Social Attitudes survey reveal that two-thirds of people either ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ that the benefits system is effective in encouraging people off benefits and into work.

Figure 1: Hardening attitudes towards the needy 1985-2010 (Baumberg et al., 2012: 7)

Figure 2: Attitudes towards the benefits system, (BSA, 2011)

Future Policy Directions

So what does this mean for policy and politics? First, no party hoping to win the forthcoming election can afford to appear soft towards those on benefits. Secondly, politicians from the major parties each need to be clear about what they plan to do to reform the system. Since 2010, the Coalition government has pursued an ambitious policy of welfare reform. Estimates by the Child Poverty Action Group put the cumulative cuts to social security and working tax credits at £22bn annually relative to 2010/11[ii]. Alongside drastic cutbacks, the Coalition has implemented two major policy initiatives – The Work Programme and Universal Credit. The former replaces previous schemes such as the ‘New Deal’ packages launched by New Labour and operates on a ‘payment-by-results’ system, allowing a number of different providers – public, private and voluntary – to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get the unemployed back i to work[iii]. Alongside this, the Universal Credit scheme aims to simplify the benefits system by creating one universal working-age benefit, and thus reduce the administrative complexity which can sometimes prevent people from leaving the so-called ‘unemployment trap’ – where the financial losses incurred upon taking work are too great to incentivise people to leave benefits.  

The aims of the Coalition governments’ policies to date have clearly resonated with popular sentiments. Both the Work Programme and Universal Credit focus on incentivising working age claimants to move off benefits and i to work. Combined with cuts to benefits, they demonstrate a clear ‘carrot and stick’ (or mainly stick) policy impetus. In the run up to May, the Conservative Party is promising more of the same with further ‘caps’ on out-of-work benefits, as well as stopping benefits rising faster than wages[iv]. Their Coalition partners – the Liberal Democrats – offer a slightly less punitive policy approach based on ‘Opportunity and Responsibility’[v]. In particular, in keeping with their liberal tradition, they pride themselves on having given low paid workers a £700 tax cut and promise to reduce taxes on low incomes further if they win the election[vi]. This, they argue, will encourage more people off benefits and in to work. Meanwhile, it is less clear exactly what the Labour Party pledges are on welfare, possibly because they are still trying to work this out for themselves. One idea which has received some attention is the possibility of increasing the links between benefits and past contributions[vii]. This notion of restoring the ‘contributory principle’ may prove a particularly useful way forward for the Labour Party in countering their image as the party of the ‘undeserving’, whilst keeping faith amongst their more progressive veins through seeking to reform, rather than dismantle the welfare state.


The politics of welfare policy remain interesting to anyone with their eye on the political arena. Whatever the outcome in May, politicians of all colours will need to show that they have a plan for modernisation of the welfare state. The electorate will expect concrete proposals which address their concerns. Despite the differences highlighted above between the pledges made by the three main political parties, there is a remarkable degree of consensus in this policy area and in many respects, social security policy represents an interesting case study on the ‘crowding to the middle’ in British politics over the past twenty years. For example, specific policy changes enacted by the Coalition government have received only tokenistic criticisms from the Labour Party, demonstrating increased agreement on general principles. One interesting illustration of this is the opposition’s response to the benefits cap, a policy brought in by the Coalition in April 2013 which limits total income from benefits for families with children to £500 per week and for single people to £350 per week[viii]. Interestingly, instead of pointing to evidence that this policy was failing to save money or get people into work[ix], the Labour Party supported the cap in principle, making only a rather minor administrative point that it ought to be higher in London than in the rest of the UK[x]. This is just one of many examples when the Labour Party has sought to appear ‘tough’ on matters to do with the welfare state[xi]. At the same time, the Coalition have come under criticism for being too harsh and punishing the vulnerable. In particular, the Bedroom Tax has met with disapproval[xii], and reports of rising food bank usage as a result of benefits sanctions have proven controversial[xiii]. In short, the three major political parties have significant image problems in this area of social policy, meaning that neither can afford to be complacent in the run-up to May.

Owen Davis

Owen is a PhD student in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent. His research explores the links between social policy and health inequalities. He holds a BSc-Econ in Politics and Modern History from Cardiff University, an MSc in Social Policy from the LSE, and an MA in Methods of Social Research from the University of Kent. His research is sponsored by the ESRC and primarily employs quantitative research designs such as longitudinal analysis and multilevel modelling to uncover the mechanisms linking social policy and health inequalities. Another aim of his thesis is to develop theoretical knowledge in the field by building an analytical framework for understanding this area of research. Owen is also interested in current social policy issues including welfare reform and food poverty and campaigns locally on these issues. He has previously worked for a Member of Parliament, in local government and with a social housing organisation. Owen is available for comment on issues related to welfare reform, food poverty and social security policy. His email address is and he tweets @opdavis87 


[i] Baumberg, B., Bell, K. and Gaffney, D. (2012) Benefits Stigma in Britain. London: Elizabeth Finn Care/Turn2us
[ii] The Guardian (2013) Every Welfare Cut Listed: How much a typical family will lose per week, April 1st 2013.
[iv] The Conservative Party (2015) Our Long-Term Economic Plan., Accessed: 2 March 2015
[v] The Liberal Democrats (2015) Welfare and Unemployment, Accessed: 2 March 2015
[vi] The Liberal Democrats (2015) Welfare and Unemployment, Accessed: 2 March 2015
[vii] The Guardian (2014) Labour Policy Report Calls for Radical Reform of Welfare State, June 14th 2014.
[viii] Benefit Cap, 12 November 2014.

[ix] Chartered Institute of Housing (2013) Experiences and Effects of the Benefits Cap in Haringey, October 2013.

[x] The New Statesman (2013) Labour’s Disastrous New Line of attack on the Benefit Cap: it’s too soft, 15 July 2013

[xi] Perhaps even more telling are recent comments by Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary that Labour will be tougher on the long-term unemployed than the Tories, 12 October 2013.

[xii] The Mirror (2015) A Million more families will pay the hated Bedroom Tax if David Cameron Triumphs in May, 28 February 2015.

[xiii] The Guardian (2015) Food banks: benefit sanctions leave clients hungry for months., 2 March 2015.
Copyright © 2015 The Ballot Box
Template By Herdiansyah Hamzah | Design By Jabin Law