Friday 3 July 2009

Nailing the Mail vision of a broken Britain

Roy Hattersley has missed the point. John Denham was not arguing that equality was dead or that the Labour party should stop fighting inequality in our Fabian seminar this week.
But he did argue passionately that if there was a greater understanding of what the great British public thought about living in a more equal society, it would help create strong policies with more public support.
He felt that it was important to win public support for the idea of making Britain more equal. And you only have to look at the sort of comments which are posted on the bottom of Hattersley's article on The Times website today to see what kind of resistance there is to the concept of "equality". It prompts an outpouring of vitriol from those who believe any change in equality legislation leaves them worse off.
There is also a strong sense of that being in the middle is the worst place to be, and that helps builds this anger about any vision of equality. Using its gloom-and-despondency headlines as bricks, the Daily Mail builds the sense that the middle class are being bombarded on all sides by legislative missiles that slice away at the comfort in their lives, and make their everyday challenges tougher.
By cleverly placing all their readers in the now angry middle the Mail creates a bond between the retired plumber in Blackpool and the City trader in Tunbridge Wells - the definition lassoes them all in - and makes them think they are a regiment of the ignored, under siege, and pits them against the outsiders - the poor, the "scroungers", and very rarely, the rich.
But those massed in the middle by the Mail are not living in the same income bracket and are often living very different lives. The Mail's anti-egalitarian vision is pitched perfectly at catching a large proportion of the public and suggesting a highly negative view of society, "a breakdown Britain", is being delivered by unfair "equality" policies to their doorsteps.
While the Mail is busy weaving this convincing tapestry for its millions of readers, the Labour party and supporters of a fairer society have been much less successful at pitching the actual story - that those people who live in countries where the income gap is narrower, where everyone uses state services, where people of different salary levels live as neighbours have better health, experience less crime, and yes, counter to the dark Mail vision - have a better quality of life.
This is the story that the Labour party has not told well. Few people connect the idea of "equality" with cutting crime, but they should.
And this was part of what Denham's argument -- if you don't get the story out, backed up with facts and figures, that people living in France, Spain, Denmark have a better quality of life and you might want that too, then you can't persuade the public to support your mission to bring that better society to Britain too.
The question is: why is the Daily Mail's vision winning, and how do you tackle the fear and anger it creates?
When Fabian researchers held discussion groups in four different UK cities, they found that although initially members might intuitively be against arguments for greater equality in the abstract, when the consequences and the quality of life evidence was outlined, they became highly supportive of a vision of a society where life improved for everyone, a life based on Hattersley's egalitarian principles.
Richard Wilkinson makes those arguments about the cost of an unequal society astonishing well in his new book, The Spirit Level, but as Denham is aware the people who are reading the Spirit Level are not the ones who you have to convince, the ones reading the Daily Mail are.


Robert said...

Well I must say it sounded more like a bitter new Labour MP, trying to tell labour look we need middle England more then the poor because the poor do not vote for us anymore, we must look after the middle England vote they are now our core.

He might be right, because I'd be dammed if I vote again for anyone.

richard.blogger said...

Equality comes from opportunity. The times when people feel the worst about inequality is when they find that they do not have the opportunity commensurate with their ability. The key to making the UK more equal is to create better opportunities for all.

Clifford said...

Rachel, I think your concluding comments about the Spirit Level are wrong. Surely the arguments in the Spirit Level are those that we should be making to the "middle group" identified by the Fabian research. In particular, they offer an argument for equality from the point of view of people's interest rather than by appealing to social justice - which might even make Daily Mail readers happy. I've added my tuppence worth at the Other TaxPayers' Alliance website.

Rachael Jolley said...

Clifford - I'm not saying we shouldn't make those arguments just that many people who need to hear those arguments are not going to read the Spirit Level, so you need to work out how to get those arguments into the Daily Mail.