Dr Tom O’Grady is awarded the Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship
1 May 2020
Congratulations to Dr Tom O’Grady who has been awarded the Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship for his project titled ‘The Transformation of British Welfare Provision: Political Beliefs and Motives’.
Since the 1980s the UK’s benefits system has been radically reformed, and public opinion has shifted strongly against it. Existing explanations for this focus on long-term economic and social changes, yet other countries facing the same trends have not changed their policies or opinions nearly as much. His book will explain why, combining historical accounts and elite interviews with quantitative analysis of speeches, newspaper articles and surveys. Dr Tom O'Grady contends that reforms did not initially represent the ‘will of the people’. Instead, the rhetoric that accompanied them – pitting benefits users against taxpayers – caused the decline in popular support for welfare.
From a political science perspective, these changes present a number of puzzles. Why did the UK introduce much deeper cuts and more extensive reforms than other countries facing similar trends? Why did the benefits provision become so much less popular with the British public even as support for spending in other areas such as the NHS remained high? Why did support fall so much more than in similar countries? By focusing on policies that provide relief from unemployment, poverty and disability, Tom will use the fellowship to write a book addressing these puzzles.
Having assembled a database of every speech made about the welfare provision in the House of Commons from 1987 to today, Tom has an unprecedented window into how politicians have changed the way that they talk about the benefits system and its users.
The first half of Tom’s fellowship year will be spent conducting further empirical research and the second half will be spent writing a book manuscript detailing his findings. His book will challenge existing scholarship on welfare state change in both political science and social policy.
The book will also have important implications for other reform efforts around the world. Many European countries are embarking on changes similar to the UK’s reforms 20-30 years ago. A key lesson will be that ‘third-way’ scholarship was wrong in forecasting that welfare-to-work would increase public support for benefits. As the success of the NHS demonstrates, strong public backing is crucial in maintaining effective and enduring welfare state policies. This is a warning that British politicians failed to heed, and that other European centre-left parties ignore at their peril.
Keep updated on Dr Tom O’Grady’s work by following him on Twitter.