Wednesday 6 October 2010

Cameron to reinvent wheel on fairness

The centre-piece of David Cameron's conference speech is expected to be a call for a new public conversation about fairness. In principle, that's fine - though one of the striking things about this government is its tendency to talk as if it has just stumbled across entirely new ideas for the very first time. (It therefore risks making, say, benefit simplification sound like an easy piece of common sense, which might explain some of its struggles to get policy as well as rhetoric right).

The most detailed study of how ideas of need, desert/merit and entitlement interact in public attitudes to fairness was carried out by Tim Horton of Louise Bamfield the Fabian Society, and published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The research has had a significant impact on political debates across the left, the right and the centre of the political spectrum - with its nuanced account of the interaction and tensions between ideas of equality and fairness.

In seeking to connect to this public sense of fairness, Cameron highlights some significant political and policy challenges for his own government.

* The claim that fairness is about more than meeting need is certainly not original. But need remains an important part of the fairness picture.

There is some pressure on David Cameron from the right to suggest that he rejects distributional analysis - such as that produced by the Institute of Fiscal Studies to show that the emergency budget was regressive - as a legitimate test of "what's fair". His speech is partly a nod in this direction, but it ought to be a constrained one. The argument has to be about supplementing such approaches, not rejecting them, given the government's current commitments.

The "fairness test" of ensuring the poor are not disproportionately affected by deficit reduction, and the commitment to reducing income inequality, in particular by reducing and ending child poverty by 2020, are tests the government has set for itself. These goals can and should be supplemented by other "life chances" measures of fairness - such as breaking the link between class and education outcomes, work, income and wealth - though to be taken seriously as fairness tests, the Prime Minister tells us how we could judge whether his govenment had succeeded or failed at the end of this term, and over a longer period.

* Fairness is about reciprocity and contribution.

The "something for something" conception of fairness, which the government seeks to appeal to with its welfare reforms, also includes the idea that those who do put in to the common pot should get something back. This is why child benefit is controversial - the government is offering a needs-based argument to challenge this idea of contribution. Similar arguments can be made about affluent pensioners receiving the basic state pension. The idea that they should do so is deeply held.

* There is strong support for responsibility at the bottom and at the top.

The leading members of this government have talked tough about bank bonuses and tax avoidance. But the bank levy is 0.04% of bank profits, compared to 0.15% in the US, and there is simply no robust evidence that large bank bonus payments are rewards for success and creating economic value.

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