Visions of fairness: what the voters say they want

“Local” and “fair” are two of the most commonly used words by Liberal Democrats (and others) when trying to persuade the public to vote for a candidate or the party. On Saturday I talked about some of the evidence showing why “local” is such a powerful message, but what about “fair”?

A recent YouGov poll for Policy Exchange asked people what values they most want a political party to reflect. “Economic responsibility” came out top with 59% mentioning it and “fairness” was not that far behind on 50%. No other possible value was mentioned by more than a third of people. Amongst Liberal Democrats, fairness was rated even higher. For example, amongst those who voted for the party in May 2010 it just pipped economic responsibility by 60% – 59% (given the margins of error, this is a statistical dead heat).

Fairness or equality?

Fairness scored far better than equality, which got 21% overall and 26% amongst Lib Dem 2010 voters. It also did far better than some of the other values that are particular important to Liberal Democrat members (freedom/liberty – 20% overall, 22% amongst Lib Dem 2010 voters; tolerance and diversity 14% / 22% and environmentalism 11% / 17%). Those findings are a good example of why smart campaigners think not only of what matters to them but also of the evidence as to how best to present that to voters. Values such as tolerance may score low on their own, but present them as features of fairness and the ability to persuade the public is transformed.

But what are people thinking of when they talk of fairness? Far more about people getting appropriate rewards for what they do than about the overall levels of equality it would seem, judging from another batch of answers in the poll.

63% of people (and 67% of 2010 Lib Dems) agree that “in a fair society, people’s incomes should depend on how much other people value the services they provide” and 85% (89%) agree that “in a fair society, people’s incomes should depend on how hard they work and how talented they are”.

By comparison, it’s down to 41% (51%) agreeing that “in a fair society, nobody should get an income a lot bigger or a lot smaller than anybody else gets”. That 51% amongst 2010 Lib Dems compares with 53% amongst people currently intending to vote Lib Dem – suggesting that the political changes since the election have not changed the party’s support base in this respect at least. (In fact, it’s one of the interesting findings of this poll that, whilst other research has suggested the Lib Dems have particularly lost support on the left, moving the political centre of gravity amongst its current voters a little to the right, looking through this poll the conception of fairness amongst Lib Dem voters in May 2010 and now is much in the same in many important ways.)

For both the public and Liberal Democrats, fairness then is important – but more in the sense of equality of opportunity than equality of outcome. As other questions in the survey show, fairness is seen not just as being about those who deserve it getting their rewards, but also those who don’t deserve it, not getting rewarded anyway.

That’s important because it points towards an area of pragmatic agreement on some policies between people with different views of fairness. Take the parallel with identity cards. Campaigns against ID cards have been at their strongest where they have married up those who objected to ID cards on principle with those who object on practical grounds; campaigns have been at their weakest when those who object on principle turned up their noses at practical arguments or those making them.

Corporate pay

There is a lesson there for those campaigning on, for example, the extremely high levels of corporate pay in some sectors where pay levels are not closely related to the performance of firms. Some may object in principle to very high pay. Others may object to it being undeserving as the pay is not a reward for good work; it’s a reward for any sort of work. Successful campaigning on corporate pay will most likely come from seeking out and using the common ground between those perspectives.

Case for education needs making

The way in which different motivations can lead to support for similar policies is shown by the question asking what governments can do to create a fairer society. The most effective option, according to both Labour and Tory voters, is to reduce unemployment. Amongst Lib Dems, reducing taxes on lower earners just has it though reducing unemployment features strongly. Notable by its mid-table appearance is improving state schools. The link between state school performance and fairness may be widely accepted across the political spectrum within political and policy circles; it’s a case that still needs making to the public.

A footnote: on a similar theme to a different poll I reported before – only 2% said they think they are amongst the richest 30% of people in Britain.

A second footnote: for a slightly different perspective on these research findings, see jedibeeftrix’s blog.

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