Doug Ford is planning a massive overhaul of Ontario’s welfare system. Based on history, it will result in massive cuts and hardship for the least well-off in society. But how progressives respond could determine how people view these reforms.

On episode #16 of Cable Street, our podcast on the rise of far-right populism around the world, I sit down with Tom O’Grady, a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of Political Science at UCL who focuses on the UK’s declining support for welfare.

Tom explains the dangers of progressives who adopt the language and rhetoric used by the right, and how it actually undermines support for working-class issues.

History shows that when progressives adopt arguments from the right or try to adopt their language, they end up reducing popular support for those policies. O’Grady’s analysis focuses on the UK Labour Party’s rhetoric opposing welfare in the 1990s and how that shaped public opinion against welfare to this day.

Doug Ford main talking point is that the best form of welfare is a job. Ford’s language is eerily similar to language used by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s. Tom argues that both these governments, by adopting rightwing language and rhetoric, helped turn a generation against welfare.

The transcript below is one half of my interview with Tom. The interview has been transcribed and condensed for legibility.


Geoff Sharpe

You published research on public attitudes and how politicians are able to ride the wave of public opinion or actively try to shape it. You use the example of public attitudes to welfare and welfare recipients in the 1990s.

UK Labour made a strategic decision to go against welfare reform. Many political strategists and media personalities thought it was a brilliant move and key to Labour’s subsequent election victory under Tony Blair.

But you say it wasn’t. Why is that?

Tom O’Grady

The leadership of Labour was extremely scarred by the experience of the 1980s. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were in power from 1979 to 1990. Labour kept losing elections and the perception was that they lost because they were too left wing. Famously Labour’s 1983 election manifesto was called the longest suicide note in history.

In 1992, Labour narrowly lost an election that they were widely expected to win. That experience was really scarring for Labour’s leadership. The leaders agreed they had to change and show the public that they changed. Welfare reform was one of the issues that they really focused on as a sign to the public that they had changed.

But what I discovered in this study is that if you actually go back and look at the public opinion on welfare in the 1990s, opinion wasn’t changing. Public opinion hadn’t actually started turning against welfare. The public really only began to turn against welfare after Labour started changing its policies.

Now it’s certainly the case that the public distrusted Labour on economic policy, but the sort of anti-welfare and anti-people-on-welfare rhetoric that wasn’t really occurring when Labour changed its mind.

I think Labour set out with good intentions, which was to say, we need to change the way the public thinks of us. It’s true there were some problems with the welfare system that needed some reform. But unintentionally, Labour ended up changing people’s opinions.

It went from a situation where Labour was talking quite warmly about people on benefits, to in the space of 10 years, saying nothing warm at all. They constantly said, like in Ontario with Doug Ford’s rhetoric on welfare, the system’s broken, it needs fixing, people are trapped in unemployment, the system doesn’t encourage them to work and they’re lazy.

That was all public heard from Labour and indeed the Conservatives as well.

Now we have a situation where welfare in the UK is completely toxic and deeply despised by the public.

In my upcoming book, I tried to think about the possible explanations for why the public would have turned so strongly against welfare in such a short period of time.

I discard a number of explanations like large-scale economic change and I had a series of evidence, including speeches from that time, that show quite strongly that it was actually influenced by Labour’s rhetoric.

Geoff Sharpe

Political strategists always think of triangulation as a good idea and that politicians need to reflect public opinion rather than shape it. This was especially true in the 1990s.

Yet right now in America, the opposite of this seems to be happening. Politicians are increasingly leaning into shaping opinion rather being shaped by it.

Republicans now oppose the FBI because Donald Trump opposes it. Democrats became more supportive of gay marriage after Obama endorsed it. Support for universal medicare has risen as politicians like Bernie Sanders championed it.

But the media environment of the 1990s is very different than today. How we get our information has radically changed. The internet didn’t really exist and the media was incredibly centralized.

Has the changing media environment made it harder or easier for politicians to shape public opinion like you’ve outlined?

Tom O’Grady

I mean it’s interesting because I think the thread that runs through the examples you just gave and that also runs through my work on welfare in the 1990s in the UK is really the influence of trusted messengers.

One of the reasons I think the British public turned against welfare was that they weren’t just hearing this message from Conservative politicians, they were hearing it from the party of the working class that set up the welfare system in the first place.

Welfare reform is why the Labour Party came to exist. The public was hearing this from a trusted messenger and the same is true of conservative partisans with Donald Trump. They are hearing about the FBI from someone who they deeply trust and feel is on their side.

Now, has the media environment made that more difficult? I’m not sure. I think the media has always filtered what politicians say.

In the UK we have a partisan set of tabloid newspapers but they’ve always been a mouthpieces for the messages of elites. I’m not sure it’s any less true today than it was in the 1990s.

What I think maybe has changed is, particularly in America, there’s the ability of people to self-select into media that only reflects their own opinions and none of the other side.

The rise of cable news in America is a particular example of this. There are studies showing that the rise of Fox News in particular caused a large increase in polarization. It’s certainly also exacerbated by the Internet and the ability to self-select online.

So I’m not sure that the media is any better or worse at reporting, but I think it’s people’s ability to self-select that is the new problem we see today.

Geoff Sharpe

Today in the UK, Corbyn has clearly articulated a very different vision than the 1990s Labour and even recent Labour leaders. It’s a vision that’s strikingly different than what the Conservatives are saying. The language and policies are all very different.

To go back to what you were just talking about, do you think Corbyn could be having that type of effect that you describe in your analysis, where his language and rhetoric are helping reframe how people view certain progressive and left-wing policies?

Tom O’Grady

I think that’s true. One of the interesting things about Corbyn is, love him or loathe him, he has a different vision of the role of a party leader than Tony Blair.

Politicians on the left seem to be scared of public opinion and see their role as being to accommodate it. But politicians on the right are quite happy to view their role as shaping public.

I don’t know what it is then if it’s something about psyche on the left and right, but Corbyn is different. He doesn’t see his role as accommodating other people’s views.

The issues he’s put on the table like nationalization is an issue that hasn’t been on the political agenda since 1970s. A whole generation of politicians who went through the 1970s in the UK when the nationalized industries were in total chaos, there was mass unemployment and three-day work weeks.

Now we see Corbyn saying we need to renationalize the railways which are currently run by private companies. And sure enough, re-nationalization has become much more popular.

Another interesting issue which might surprise you is actually brexit in the UK.  Corbyn is actually pro-Brexit and has always been an opponent of European Union, but from the left rather than the right.

He sees EU as a neo-liberal institution that has rules which would prevent some of the policies like mass state ownership. And you did see some people on the left who would never have thought of opposing it come out and oppose it.

I had super left-wing friends who said: “now I’m going to vote for Brexit.” They wouldn’t say it was because Corbyn said so, but I think that was certainly part of it. He put left-wing opposition to the European Union on the map in a way that it hadn’t been.

So yes, I think Corbyn’s unapologetic style is one where he is shaping public opinion far more than other Labour leaders, like Ed Milliband and Gordon Brown who seemed to be apologetic for the policies they were put forward.

Listen to the full episode below, or head over to iTunes.