Join our club
It's often said that politicians are a bunch of liars and that the public shouldn't trust 'em any further than they can throw them. The same accusation, of course, could just as easily be levied at the public themselves, as lefties who trusted polls showing majorities in favour of tax rises in the early 90s or right-wing Tories who believed that people wanted to hear all about their interesting ideas on withdrawing from the EU have found. Being able to draw the correct conclusions from research and polling, and effectively work out when they are lying, is an essential political skill.
Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about public attitudes came up with some challenging conclusions. They found that an increasing number of people saw the welfare state as a 'club', where there are limited resources to be distributed amongst its members, and growing concern about 'free riders' who are perceived to be cheating the system. The people who believe that the welfare state should provide to all according to their need is falling, and tend to be more affluent. While people find it hard to discuss whether there is poverty in the UK, and become sceptical when given statistics on the subject, they believe that there is an abundance of material prosperity - 'everyone' has access to consumer durables, goods and services, and at the same time there is a growing lack of respect and decent values. Poverty, in other words, is caused by people behaving incorrectly.
For us lefties, this is potentially lethal stuff. People think that they will lose out if more is done to help people in poverty, support for universal services is falling, especially amongst those who should be benefiting from them most, and there is growing concern about an anti-social menace which can easily be harnessed against migrants and others on the margins of society.
New Labour's response has not been to ignore these concerns, but to attempt to address them. Alongside the 'respect agenda' and yearly bills to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour, there has a conscious attempt to make sure that resources are, as far as possible, directed towards the 'deserving', including but not limited to tax and pension credits, the New Deal, Sure Start, targeted grants for students, rises in benefits for children, but not for out of work adults. If New Labour had been around when the NHS came to be set up, they would have established Health credits and action zones, targeted at areas where ill health was widespread, and recoiled at the notion that the hardpressed taxpayer should pay for a Lord or a millionaire to get their trip to the doctor or their operation paid for. They've done, in other words, about as much as could reasonably be expected to meet changing public attitudes to the welfare state.
Meanwhile, unreformed Red Ken down in London ignored the research and articles by people like David Goodhart and has put up taxes to allow under 18's to use public transport for free, expanding the scope of the welfare state to support the 'undeserving' in a very visible way.
By the logic of the model of the welfare state as a club, the government should be getting credit for trying to promote respect and decency, and making sure that resources are going as far as possible to the deserving, and the public should be behind the Tories in London in their attempt to scrap the free travel for under 18's. And yet...
The most popular part of the welfare state is still the NHS, which helps the deserving and undeserving alike. The government struggles to get anyone to pay attention to its targeted social justice programmes and only just managed to get its higher education reforms through parliament. Meanwhile, the Tory attempts to scrap free bus travel for young people (and threaten it for older people, which is even worse politics) have probably guaranteed Red Ken another four years as Mayor.
One implication of people seeing the welfare state as a club, while being increasingly sceptical about government promises and evidence, is that they want to see how they or their friends or family benefit. By drawing the criteria for eligibility to keep out the 'undeserving', the government cuts off support for many of the programmes which should be much better known and more popular. Far from popular attitudes making universal welfare services impossible, it makes them all the more necessary.