“The way I see it,” explained Evan Harris MP at the Fabian public attitudes seminar in Birmingham, “it's poor people taking money from society they’re not entitled to or it's rich people taking money from society they’re not entitled to. Personally, I’m far happier with the poor evading system as they’re poor”.
With good reason too. Benefit fraud costs the country £800 million a year, according to the Public Accounts Committee where as the wealthy are ripping us of to the tune of £13billion a year.
Depressingly though, recent JRF research found the public still view the poor with more cynicism than the rich, doubting their ability to make any worthwhile contribution to society. Although the public does agree that some people do well in life because of who they know not because they are especially talented. Whilst the poor are often denigrated, inequalities at the top end can be justified so long as they're are seen as fair, the Fabians’ found. High earners are more talented, work harder and studied longer, people think.
Or rather, thought.
People’s ability to make order of inequality has come crashing down with the credit crunch and they can no longer rationalise excessive wages as before. There’s now broad cross-party support for taxing the rich and, according to Evan Harris, the Lib Dems plan to seize on it.
Harris outlined plans to raise £20billion through taxing the wealthy and polluters in order to raise the tax threshold to £10,000. Those earning less than this would also be exempt from Council Tax.
“This is massively redistributive,” he explained, “but the losers, although there aren’t very many of them, will lose massively.” Can the Lib Dems really gain support for such progressive measures, policies that will address inequality but will also give money to an ‘undeserving’ poor?
One of the problems Harris argued, is that the government talks loosely about ‘ordinary’ families, ‘hard-working families’, those on ‘middle incomes’, which almost everyone identifies with. What is a middle income though?
Lib Dems claim their proposals will benefit 80% of society, leaving only the top 20% worse off. Think bankers, lawyers and hedge fund managers. But also think so called 'ordinary' households where, for example, a teacher lives with a policewoman. They also have a combined income that falls into the top 20%. Suddenly people are not so comfortable. Taking money from greedy fatcats, we like, taking money from our neighbours, we don’t.
There is a need for clarity. The public needs to be made more aware of existing inequalities and the impact of poverty on people's life chances. When research participants were given evidence of the long-term impact of inequalities, they were far more in favour of poverty-tackling policies.
The media could also do more to help. As Harris pointed out, papers happily tell the ‘man from bad background makes good’ story without ever mentioning that it was the welfare state that kept him alive on the way up.
Policy makers must to provide more information and hone in on people’s social conscience. Progressives should seize the opportunity for change.
Next Wednesday, Rhodri Morgan speaks at the Cardiff leg of the Fabian Roadshow. There are still a few places left.