How Welfare States Shape the Democratic Public: Policy feedback, participation, voting, and attitudes, by Staffan Kumlin and Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen (eds)

Edward Elgar, 2014, 1 78254 549 1, hbk, ix + 337 pp, £90

In democratic countries public policy is influenced, at least to some extent, by public opinion. At the same time, policy changes affect public opinion. This in turn influences the next wave of policy change. The process is circular. This collection of essays is an attempt to understand the somewhat under-researched part of the loop in which policy change affects public opinion.

An important finding is found in the book’s introduction. The editors review the ‘simple accountability model’ that assumes that populations hold governments responsible for unpopular welfare state retrenchment and vote them out of office and find that the model does not

capture the actual nature of feedback in European welfare states. … cuts in replacement rates and dissatisfaction with public services have appeared to matter little for government survival, except when cuts are very large and recent, and extensively covered in election campaigns.

They suggest that this phenomenon is a

function of frustration with the functioning of democratic institutions and actors more broadly, perhaps exactly because it is hard to hold specific actors to account. (p.8)

This suggestion is borne out in chapter 2, on the immediate galvanising effect of the Spanish Government’s 2010 austerity measures and of the longer term decline in levels of political engagement that followed. Financial resources can empower citizens, so it is no surprise that declining resources disempower them. Chapter 3 finds that ‘individuals in countries that invest in and spend more on working-age adults and families are more likely to participate in elections’ (p.56). Chapter 4 finds that those with vocational education are more likely to vote in countries with more co-ordinated market economies than in countries with more liberal market economies. (Here more attention might have been paid to the relationship between economic co-ordination and more equal pre-tax incomes, the connection between more equal incomes and political participation, and the combination of these relationships as a possible causal factor.) Chapter 6 comes to a particularly interesting conclusion:

As individuals pay more direct taxes, they are more likely to vote based on their redistribute preferences. Receiving tax breaks, by contrast, actually reduces the weight that individuals attach to their preferences, even though they have important distributive implications. Against expectations, receiving direct benefits did not accentuate the importance of redistributive preferences. (p.109)

Similarly, chapter 10 finds that ‘unemployment benefit generosity loses some of its legitimization effect as the problem of unemployment is magnified and paid attention to’ (p.193).

Chapter 7 finds that across Europe fixed-term workers tend to reject centre-right parties in favour of social democratic and far-left parties, particularly where there are clearer differences between permanent and fixed-term employment contracts: although the researchers found that in the UK there is now little difference between the major political parties in the employment field, little difference between fixed term and permanent contracts, and fixed term workers will still often vote for the major centre right party: perhaps because fixed term employment contracts exist higher up the earnings scale. There is a difference between zero hours contracts and other types, and a difference between the parties on zero hour contracts – although this is not an issue discussed in the book.

Chapter 8 finds that in the case of Germany’s Bismarckian welfare state the government has been published for retrenchment – perhaps because of the social insurance basis of the German welfare state, and suggests that such punishment does not occur in more liberal welfare states, with means-tested benefits at their core, because status maintenance is not such an issue: that is, where substantial social insurance benefits give way to means-tested benefits, status is lost, but where the majority of benefits recipients are already on means-tested benefits then retrenchment does not change the mechanism by which households receive their benefits.

Chapter 9 finds that major and visible retrenchment can result in electoral punishment; chapter 10 finds that in relation to Belgium’s regional governments citizens’ attitudes ‘may be the outcome of public policies’ (p.218); and chapter 11 discovers quite a complex pattern of public attitudes to increasing state retirement ages. People are able to understand the argument from increasing longevity to a higher state retirement age, but an increase in the retirement age in one year reduces acceptance of further increases in the next. It is possible for a population to reach short-term reform saturation; but in the longer term generation change again aligns public attitudes with changed institutions. Chapter 12 finds varying patterns of acceptance of the deservingness of unemployment benefit recipients across Europe, with lower unemployment benefits associated with a greater appreciation of unemployed people’s deservingness. The chapter also records the fact that ‘about 70 and 90 per cent of the European public favours linking strict job search obligations to benefit receipt’ (p.264).

Chapter 13 interestingly discovers that dissatisfaction with a public service can lead to a public desire for increasing expenditure on it, and that satisfaction can lower demand for spending. Chapter 14 finds that providing the public with more increasing amounts of information on public service performance levels increases public knowledge of those levels: and that the public does not find it easy to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information: a serious problem for democracy, particularly in the context of national elections. A concluding chapter recognises the complexity of the ways in which changing policy affects public attitudes.

Every chapter of this book is full of rigorous research and interesting results, and its contents should be carefully absorbed by any policy-maker contemplating a transition from means-tested to universal benefits. Such a policy change would change public attitudes, which would in turn make it either easier or more difficult to embed the change. My reading of this book suggests that if the Government were to propose an increase in genuinely universal benefits, and an accompanying decrease in means-tested benefits, then public approval of the reduced level of means-tested benefits being paid to unemployed people would cohere with a willingness to spend additional public money on sorting out the benefits system to generate public acceptability of the policy change. The crucial factor will be government enthusiasm for the transition.