The poor hit by austerity don’t vote, while the rich who benefit do
How can we explain the Conservative victory in last week’s British elections in the context of the austerity measures the Tories have been pushing through since they came to office? Indeed, even if the deficit hasn’t come down near the levels announced by the Coalition, there have been net cuts in social spending since it came to power. Political economy theories usually argue that voters sanction governmnets who cut social benefits. Building on the good ratings for economic competence attributed to the Tories in opinion polls, “austerians” have been trumpeting that this is a vindication of the austerity agenda. The storyline is that austerity works for everyone, unemployment is down, and this is why the Conservative party has triumphed in the polls. However, there is clear evidence that not everybody has been better off under the Coalition austerity plans. These plans have had distinct distributional effects: the poorest households have been hit the hardest, while middle-and higher income households have come out relatively unscathed.
This victory is interesting because the common wisdom until recently was that politicians would systematically avoid cuts in public spending that would challenge their electoral prospects. This is especially important for welfare programs since the path-breaking analysis of Paul Pierson: people like social programs they are entitled to, and getting rid of them loses votes for incumbents. However, cuts in public spending didn’t hamper the electoral score of the Tories here, and I think this is due to the setup of the British welfare state and the composition of the Tory electorate.
In a nutshell, low-incomes that paid the price for welfare cuts don’t vote, and especially don’t vote Tory, while those on higher incomes for whom lower taxes are more important do vote. After the poll debacle of the election, it appears that it wasn’t “Shy Tories” that were the decisive factor, but potential Labour supporters not bothering to vote. In the graph below, I have put together two measures: the share of net income coming from the state (from here; negative values mean transfers to the state as a share of net income), and the likelihood to vote in the general elections from the British Election Study by income quintile. The latter is not a very good measure because people systematically lie when they say whether they’re going to vote. However, it reports the difference to the average across quintiles on a scale from from 1 to 5. What the graph shows is that people who receive most of their income from the state via social transfers (and who are the most likely to be hit by austerity cuts) are also those that are the least likely to go and vote. By contrast, those who are net contributors to the public budget – and have an interest in cuts to get lower taxes – are those that are the most likely to vote. As I argued elsewhere, higher income quintiles are also much more likely to vote Tory. Hence, austerity could be pursued while limiting a potential backlash because it harms those that don’t vote, and rewards those who do.
Besides this structural tendency observed about everywhere (the poor are much less likely to vote than the rich), this is also connected to some specificities of the British welfare state that make it easier for Conservative governments to retrench social programs without facing electoral sanctions. Because social programs are strongly targeted at the poor via means-testing and flat rates, the middle class basically doesn’t have an interest in welfare. The drop between middle class wages and benefits is simply too large for this group to consider it a valuable safety net. Figure 2 shows how jobseekers’ benefit is set at much lower lowers than in most other European countries. In countries of continental Europe, where the goal of social benefits is not only to preserve a basic safety net for the poor but to maintain middle class incomes in periods of unemployment or sickness, it is much more difficult to retrench benefits because the middle class also benefits from them. This is why you see people taking to the streets in France about every time the government seeks to downsize entitlement or benefit levels. In Britain, cutting them doesn’t cause much of a fuss because those that suffer don’t vote, and the middle class prefers lower taxes to social insurance.
Finally, it must be noted that the schemes that benefit the middle class as well, such as pensions and the NHS, were not cut. Pension spending was ring-fenced by the government (who was probably aware of the much higher turnout of older voters), while NHS spending is meant to increase in the parliament, probably at the expense of schemes benefitting groups with low turnout.