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Today, Bright Blue released its report, Give and take, exploring how conservatives think about welfare and offering policy recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the system and support for it.

Public support for state welfare is at a historic low and amidst an unsupportive public, Conservative voters stand out as particularly unsympathetic to state welfare. In this report, we go back to first principles about how conservatives view the vulnerable and impoverished and think they should be supported. While “welfare” is closely associated with state welfare in public discourse, we conceived of welfare more broadly to include other providers of support such as families, the local community and charitable organisations. We unearth interrelated strands of conservative thinking relating to:

•Benefit claimants

•The purpose of welfare

•Different sources of welfare

We found that conservatives hold a number of positive principles and views about welfare which go beyond the prevailing narrative from the government of reducing the size of the state and reducing public expenditure. Given fiscal constraints, the government has been right to focus upon limiting welfare expenditure, but this policy focus should not be too dominant. It is also important to draw upon a wider range of conservatives principles to reshape our welfare system.

We discuss our policy recommendations here, but this blog piece will focus upon outlining the strands of conservative thinking these recommendations were built upon and explaining how conservatives think about welfare.

Views of benefit claimants

The first conservative principle we identify is a belief in individual control and personal responsibility. Conservatives tend to see individuals as agents who can shape and determine their circumstances, and so are seen to be more responsible for their impoverishment. This principle also lends itself to an opposition to paternalism in the delivery of welfare. On this view, claimants ought to be expected and encouraged, as far as possible, to make their own decisions about how they spend their money.

In polling conducted for the report by Survation, we asked respondents to rank the causes of poverty from 0 to 10, where ‘0’ signifies poverty being caused entirely by circumstances beyond people’s control, ‘10’ signifies poverty being caused entirely by people not doing enough to help themselves, and ‘5’ signifies an even mix of both. Conservatives were significantly more likely to opt for numbers above than 5, while Labour voters preferred numbers less than 5. In response to a further question in our polling, Conservatives were most likely to report “lack of work ethos” or “unwillingness to accept boring/menial jobs” as causes of impoverishment compared to Labour voters who were more likely to cite “lack of available jobs” and “low wages paid by employers”.

The second principle we unearth is that conservatives make a clearer distinction between the deserving and underserving among benefit claimants. Conservatives see groups such as pensioners and disabled people to be especially deserving and contrast these sharply with groups deemed undeserving such as the unemployed and immigrants.

The third conservative principle we identify concerns the rational agency of claimants. Claimants are often understood by conservatives as making a rational choice to rely on the state. On this view, claimants are seen to be responding rationally to the various incentives they have available to them in the same way that non-claimants also seek to maximise their financial position. This view prompts a policy focus on the financial disincentives to work that the welfare system creates.

The fourth conservative principle we explore is that relying upon benefits gives rise to a psychology and culture of dependency. Claimants are seen as suffering from individual shortcomings – attitudes and entrenched behaviours – which set them apart from nonclaimants. In our polling, we found that 65% of Conservative voters see being “dependent on the system” as a typical characteristic of benefit claimants, compared to 36% of Labour voters. Thirty nine percent of Conservative voters judged that welfare cuts have been good for claimants compared to 12% of Labour voters.

The fifth view we unearth concerns the lack of trust conservatives have in benefit claimants. In our polling, we found that Conservative voters are nearly twice as likely as Labour voters to judge that the best description of the welfare system is “full of fraud and abuse” – 44% of Conservatives compared to 22% of Labour supporters. Furthermore, even for legitimate claimants, we found that an overwhelming majority of Conservative voters (68%) do not trust them to spend their benefits sensibly and without government interference. This contrasted starkly with the view taken of individuals in general, who are deemed best placed to know how to spend their money; 69% of Conservatives agreed with this.

Views of the purpose of welfare

The first principle we identify in this area is the importance of reciprocity to conservatives. Reciprocity is the principle that what an individual receives should be related to what they have given or offered: ‘something for something’. Conservatives tend to think that welfare ought to enshrine and deliver reciprocal outcomes.

One way to deliver reciprocity is to allocate welfare resources on the basis of past contributions to the tax system. In our polling, we found that Conservative voters were markedly more likely to prefer allocating benefits on the basis of contribution, as opposed to need, than Labour voters. Fifty percent of Conservatives preferred prioritising those who had contributed compared to 24% of Labour supporters. A second way to deliver reciprocity is by focusing upon claimants’ current reciprocal behavior; specifically, the conditions attached to receiving benefits. Other survey evidence finds that Conservatives support tougher conditions for claiming benefits.

The second conservative principle we identify regarding the purpose of welfare concerns promoting opportunity. Welfare should be a means of enabling people to improve their own situation and providing opportunities to help them do so.

In our polling, we found that a majority of Conservative voters (57%) prioritise a welfare system which enables people to contribute to society in the future over one where less is spent on benefits. We also found that given the choice of making society more equal and ensuring individuals have the same opportunities, Conservative voters opt overwhelmingly for the latter, whereas the former appeals much more to Labour voters. Seventy seven percent of Conservatives opt for a system which “ensures individuals have the same opportunities to flourish” compared to 47% of Labour voters.

Views of different sources of welfare

The first view we explore in this area is that there ought to be a small state. For both economic and social reasons, conservatives believe that the role and the size of the state should be limited. With regards to welfare, this tempers conservative support for extensive state provision of welfare. In our polling, we found that Conservative voters are less likely than Labour voters to see the state as primarily responsible for supporting people in financial difficulty. Given the choice of the state, families, local community, neighbours and friends and charities, 54% of Labour voters agree that the state is most responsible for supporting people in financial difficulty, compared to 41% of Conservative voters.

The second conservative view relating to sources of welfare we identify is the importance of families. Support provided within the family unit differs from state welfare in being more personal and involving mutual obligations. Our polling showed that Conservative voters see families as primarily responsible for supporting those

in financial difficulty; Given the choice of the state, families, local community, neighbours and friends and charities, 54% of Conservative voters agree that families are most responsible for supporting people in financial difficulty, compared to 36% of Labour voters. Our polling also found that a majority of Conservative voters believe that the state has a role in encouraging stable families (69%).

The final conservative view we discuss concerns active communities. Active communities, including volunteering and charitable giving, are integral to how conservatives think about welfare provision. Other survey evidence shows that Conservatives are more likely than Labour voters to want power to be taken away from government and for charities and voluntary groups to be more involved in the delivery of public services. Increasing the support offered by these non-state providers has a particular value in a period of austerity.