The Transformation of British Welfare Policy: Politics, Discourse and Public Opinion

The Transformation of British Welfare Policy: Politics, Discourse and Public Opinion

Tuesday, 19 October 2021 - 5:00pm
ESC Seminar Room/Hybrid webinar
Tom O’Grady (University College London)
Tim Vlandas (St Antony’s College, Oxford)
Tim Vlandas (St Antony’s College, Oxford)
Daniel McArthur (Schoolpol, Oxford)
European Studies Seminar


Since 2010 the UK has embarked on a series of radical welfare reforms that have led to greater poverty, homelessness, indebtedness, and foodbank use. It has diverged from other European countries experiencing similar economic and social trends, who have not enacted such dramatic cuts and reforms. Until recently, however, the changes proved very popular with the public, who increasingly hated the welfare system and viewed its users as lazy, undeserving and likely to be cheating. 

Focusing on policies that provide relief from unemployment, poverty and disability, in this book Tom O’Grady uncovers why Britain's welfare system has been reformed so radically and why, until recently, the public enthusiastically endorsed this programme. Using a comparative and historical perspective, he traces the evolution of British welfare policy, politics, discourse, and public opinion since the 1980s, arguing that from the 1990s a long-term change in discourse from both politicians and the media caused the British public to turn against welfare by 2010. That, combined with the financial crisis, left the system uniquely vulnerable to cuts. This book explores the roots of public opinion on the welfare system, the motives of politicians who have revolutionised it, and the ways in which the system and its users have been spoken about. It is an account of how the public came to consider deserving recipients of help as scroungers; of when and why politicians and the media vilified them; of political parties whose discourse and policies were transformed, almost overnight; and of Britain's journey from providing welfare as generously as the average European country in the 1970s to becoming an outlier today.

Tom O'Grady is a Lecturer in Quantitative Political Science at UCL. His research focuses on political economy, political behaviour and political parties in the UK and Europe. At the moment, he is working on a book on the politics of welfare reforms in the UK since the 1980s, funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship: see here for more information on the project. He is also currently working on the political economy of housing policy and on the changing age structure of European societies. Past projects have examined measuring long-term ideological change in Europe, attitudes to redistribution and the welfare state, and the politics of class including the lack of working-class MPs in British politics. 

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