Thursday, 30 July 2009

Stop whingeing and start talking about why equality works

How often in an average day do you hear people whinge about how politicians are rubbish or about how Britain is not in the shape they would like it to be in? I'd say about ten.
Get my family or friends together and there will be a lot of moaning about how things should be better, but how many are out there trying to make that change? Hardly any.
If you want to create a fairer British society, then there needs to be more arguments about why a fairer society works better; about health outcomes, and crime patterns; about kids doing better in schools. There needs to be a stronger public discourse on what are the gains and losses and how they equate to daily life.
In his introduction to a debate in Cardiff this week Fabian general secretary Sunder Katwala made the point that "a lot of people believe that inequality is fair", because over time the arguments about who deserves what have established themselves as right and true.
As recent Fabian research shows, people will invent reasons to justify why some people earn a stratospheric salary, even if they don't exist, because they want to believe they live in a fair society.
It is important to challenge stereotypes about British society if you want to change public understanding, argued Katwala at the Fabian Society/JRF event.
When stereotypes fall into common use - chavs, scroungers and contrastingly the deserving rich - then they start to circulate without question.
As Katwala argued you also need to challenge fatalism, "if you believe poverty is inevitable then you will not support policies to address inequality".
Mass protest movements over time have shown that if the public exerts pressure and shows it cares enough it can move the public argument and political change is inevitable. Look at the suffragettes, the poll tax, civil rights, and in recent months we have seen the power of public movements in Iran to focus world attention on government action and inaction.
But mass movements are not only about street demonstrations. Work by NGOs such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, the RSPB or the National Trust have raised specific arguments and influenced policies.
There are various models for policy campaigners to learn from, but perhaps the best lesson is how Thatcherism won public hearts and minds by making very simplistic arguments - and making them over and over again, until they became accepted as truths.
At the debate, Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan revealed an ambition to turn Wales into a "small, smart Nordic country" - not so much for the snowboarding and the glaciers - but because of the health and society benefits that Denmark and Sweden enjoy, compared with Wales.
He yearns for that Scandinavian sense of social solidarity - and willingness to redistribute from rich to poor to create a strong nation.
If Morgan wants persuasive evidence of the strength of the Nordic society he craves, then he can use the research of Pickett and Wilkinson which has strong international comparitive indicators.
He has made the first step towards his vision of a new Nordic-style Wales with the introduction of a new foundation phase of education modelled on Scandinavian kindergartens, which he hopes will improve aspiration and skills in deprived working-class Welsh neighbourhoods, so that smart poor kids are not overtaken in school by not-so-bright middle class kids by the age of eight.
But the reaction of a member of the Welsh audience immediately underlined why you need to make more effort to change the arguments and expectations and add a vision if you want to gather public support. The bloke at the back of the room said he had no idea that the foundation policy was inspired by the Nordic experience. Sell that vision Rhodri.
The Fabian/JRF public attitudes to inequality research not only shows public attitudes to the wages that people deserve to attitudes, but also to benefit payments.
It also found that the public was more supportive towards benefit payment to the unemployed if they felt those that received benefits would be make a contribution to society in the long-term.
A further step would be to ask the public what contributions they would be prepared to make to change policies, pay tax and deliver benefits if they felt they could live in a fairer Britain in future, and if that Britain had better health, lower crime and better education - how they would feel about contributing to that.

1 comment:

Zio Bastone said...

A bit of discourse analysis…

From its ingratiatingly self-help beginning (‘How often…?’) through to its focus group conclusion (‘A further step would be to ask the public…’) isn’t this post really about selling predetermined solutions (‘Sell that vision Rhodri’; Close that sale!), about imposing subjectivity (You asked for more chocolate buttons. We brought you more chocolate buttons!) upon subalternised consumers?

This is not how politics ought to be. Politics is/are or ought to be the instantiation of social subjectivity in the polity, about a discovery of what the problems are and a shaping of the solutions as we go along and from below. And that has to take place at the ‘movement’ level, the level at which opinions start; not with the confection of artfully named ‘solutions’ at the level of the management consultant, the think tank and/or the focus group: ‘crime’ for ‘grime’, ‘Sure Start’ for ‘Start-rite’ and so forth.

Despite what you say, what’s striking isn’t the presumed laziness of those who look at politicians with contempt but how much public hostility reflects the sheer contempt with which politicians look at people. We (the public) can change the discourse by changing the language as much as by anything else, by making it more open and inclusive, through a sense of positionality. And that means the syntax, who does what and to whom, as much as if not more than which policy nouns and adjectives are employed by the various wonks.

At least when the public look on politicians with contempt it is they who are doing the looking. So all is not lost. Or not yet.

As to Thatcherism, which you see as one of the ‘models … to learn from’, that was at least partly a matter NOT of dumbing down complex policy issues to sell to the cretins out there but of actually being in tune, for a time, with some of the aspirations of a new social subject. The mythology of the longest suicide note in history, which Gerald Kaufman (owner, in recent years, of one of the world’s most expensive televisions) helped to create, put New Labour at the centre of its own private melodrama. But it also meant that this other possibility has been almost entirely neglected.