How the government lost the fairness argument


Sunder Katwala is the general secretary of the Fabian Society; he will be speaking this morning at the Netroots conference, a conference Left Foot Forward is covering live throughout the day

Today’s netroots conference, which Left Foot Forward is supporting, will open by discussing strategies for campaigning against spending cuts. Campaigners should take confidence from how the government has lost ground significantly over one of its central arguments – that its deficit reduction and spending cuts programme will meet the fairness test.

YouGov have polled this question regularly from June to December 2010:

“Thinking about the way in which the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit, do you think this is … being done fairly or unfairly?”

The allows us to create a “fair cuts?” index of perceptions of whether or not the government is meeting the fairness test, as the graph below illustrates:

Fairness-of-cuts-poll

The first thing to note is that “fair cuts” attitudes have shifted considerably more than other questions about the impact of cuts. The number of people thinking cuts are fair has ranged from 30 per cent to 45 per cent (15 points); the number thinking they are unfair has varied between 33 per cent and 55 per cent (22 points).

Other responses about the impact of cuts have usually been considerably more stable across the year than attitudes about fairness, suggesting these perceptions have been particularly open to influence through advocacy or campaigning, both by government and other groups. The number of people worried that people like them might suffer directly from cuts has shifted only between 68-72%; the number worried about losing their job or finding work between 60-64%; and about being worried about not having enough money to live comfortably has also been fairly stable, between 67 and 71%.

The second is that the broad story of 2010 was that opinion on fairness has shifted strongly against the government, which was winning the “fair cuts” argument by a margin of 11 points, back in June, and trailing by 22 points by the end of the year.

Why did attitudes shift against the government, and what lessons might we take from the last year to inform advocacy and campaigning in 2011? Here are some (tentative) ideas about some of the factors which might have informed these shifts in attitudes.

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George Osborne’s budget was a fairness hit for 24 hours – but not for much longer

The high point for the government on fairness was immediately after the George Osborne budget on June 22nd. The major bulletins picking up the Chancellor’s confidently articulated central message – that the cuts were necessary and fair – resonated in immediate next day polling, sending the fair cuts index up to +11, but this had fallen back to level pegging (-1) with the next comparable poll at the end of the fortnight.

Among high profile contributions aiming to inform or persuade elite and public opinion were the IFS’s initial analysis showing that the budget’s tax and benefit changes were “regressive” – which had a major impact on media coverage – and the first Fabian Society analysis for the TUC and Unison of the distribution of public spending cuts, prominently reported in The Observer on the first weekend. This kind of initial political, civic and media scrutiny had established that the question was sharply contested – with ministers stoutly defending their claim to “fairness” as this question became central to much radio and TV coverage.

These initial skirmishes left everything to play for.

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The government lost a long summer of fairness debate

The fairness case did not dip significantly into the red until the government had much the worse of a long summer of debate and scrutiny. The fair cuts index fell from -1 in early July to -16 by the end of August and -21 by mid-September. It seems plausible to identify at least three potentially significant contributors to this shift though there may be others. Each of the key moments I can identify crucially combined public campaigning with new evidence seeking to persuade and shift opinion.

Firstly, the cuts debate became less abstract and much more concrete. The highest profile issue was cancelling school building projects. Ed Balls’s scrutiny of Michael Gove’s plans hurt the government’s argument badly in two ways: the claim that the deficit could be cut purely by cutting out “waste” with no cuts to frontline services was not heard again once school building projects started being scrapped; and the question of competence much undermined the claim to ‘fair cuts’ – as a shambolic approach to which projects would or would not be cut undermined any sense that choices were being made fairly.

This question of real world cuts will be increasingly important in 2011, when the locus of debate will increasingly be local as much as national.

Secondly, while the government had been on the defensive over its tax and benefit changes immediately after June’s budget, they lost this argument rather more decisively during the summer, as new Institute for Fiscal Studies research commissioned by the Child Poverty Action Group was widely debated in politics and the media.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, paid a back-handed compliment to how campaigners and bloggers disseminated this, in seeking to mobilise a counter-attack from the right:

“The left-wing blog and tweetosphere was at its ruthless best yesterday. Acting with one Borg-like mind they understood the significance of the IFS report and its conclusion that the CSR and Budget were regressive. They understand that they have a massive opportunity to seriously damage the coalition’s progressive credentials.

“Next Left, Left Foot Forward and the New Statesman blog, in particular, combined to draw every journalist’s attention to every aspect of the Institute’s conclusion that many austerity measures fell heavily on the poor. The Guardian has splashed on the coalition’s poverty credentials for two consecutive days.”

The YouGov polling trends suggests he was right about its significance – and that this did indeed do serious and lasting damage.

Thirdly, the government’s claim that the cuts themselves were progressive was also effectively challenged. The government rather toned down its head-on challenges to the IFS – shifting mainly to the argument that the analysis was accurate but partial. The IFS’s tax and benefit analysis does not include the value of the public services people live by.

That’s true – but this argument did not help the government’s case. Here, the TUC took the lead in publishing original research from Landman Economics and the Fabian Society to complete the picture, and provide a full distributional analysis of the impact of spending too. The spending cuts are more sharply regressive than the tax and benefit changes.

To its credit, the government institutionalised this approach in response, by publishing its own distribution of spending analysis for the first time with the CSR. The data is similar, though was used to claim the opposite. But the government’s rebuttal was not influential with media opinion formers. (It depends on the counterintuitive claim that losing £10 a week of public services hits a richer household harder than a poorer one!)

It is unlikely that there are too many conversations in the proverbial Dog and Duck along the lines of “well, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Fabians report that it is regressive in distributional terms – and the only fair measures are those they inherited from Alastair Darling”, but that does not mean that there is not an important link between elite level discourse, media scrutiny and the shaping of broader public attitudes.

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How the “unfair” argument became entrenched

The conference season again suggests that high profile moments in the political calendar can affect attitudes – but also that these are less dramatic once the contours of the debate have been established.

The number of people saying the cuts were “unfair” hit 51 per cent for the first time at the end of the TUC conference – the highest profile week of the year for the trade unions in media terms – as the “fair cuts” index fell to -21, but coverage of the Tory party conference briefly reduced this to -7. The government was surprised at the strength of reaction to its child benefit changes – where the “we’re in this together” case for removing child benefit from the better off was undermined.

Attitudes were more stable in the final three months of the year – with major events like the student protests, and increasing numbers of local campaigns, appearing to confirm and solidify opinion, which has continued to shift more gradually towards “unfair”.

In particular, it is interesting that there was no similar “fairness bounce” for the government after the October 20th Comprehensive Spending Review, unlike the June budget. These debates largely replayed those that had taken place in June and the summer and so attitudes did not shift dramatically – and the number of don’t knows was now consistently 14%, having been more than double that before.

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The government has been more likely to preach to the converted than its opponents

A final lesson is that opponents of the government’s agenda have been relatively effective – on the question of fairness – at persuading the middle ground of public opinion, while the government appears to have been much more guilty of preaching only to the already converted.

The attitudes data presents an important blow to a government “narrative” that all reasonable people understand that the cuts are necessary and fair – and that the opposition is made up of a smattering of ‘denialists’ and refuseniks who would always oppose everything they do. This is a popular argument with commentators who champion the government – but it does not seem to be persuading many people beyond the core 30% of the electorate who have always been satisfied with the government’s strategy.

The content and tone of the government’s “there is no alternative” argument risks patronising a considerable swath of opinion, which was at least open to the government’s argument six months ago.

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Has the fairness argument been won?

Attitudes can go up as well as down, and the government might cope with losing the fairness argument if it can still persuade people that its policy is necessary and unavoidable. But there is a broad acceptance from the government’s supporters and opponents that opinion about “fairness” is unlikely to be turned around without a considerable shift in government strategy and a significant attempt to reframe the debate.

Critics on the left believe that means rethinking the deficit and cuts strategy – and finding fairer alternatives on the scale, speed and make-up of deficit reduction.

Supporters of the government from the anti-egalitarian right – voiced by Policy Exchange and Conservative Home – is that the coalition government made a mistake in making the “fairness” claim for its deficit reduction programme, and an even bigger one in seeming to accept distributional analysis as an important part of “fairness”. The argument is that the government should drop the fairness claim – or at least reframe it, rejecting distributional analysis in favour of a different argument about who deserves what. The housing benefit argument is one area where the government is trying to do this.

The problem is that the leading figures in the government were very clearly for greater equality before being told they should be against it – and there are many examples of David Cameron, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin and other Conservatives, as well as Liberal Democrats in government, saying why they thought inequality and relative poverty mattered, such as seeking to meet the child poverty targets, even if they increasingly wish to say that these “abstract” measures are not particularly important.

The government does now wish to redefine poverty as well as fairness – in a way which would make impacts very difficult to measure.

If it appears that the motivation is not a sincere one, but rather an attempt to move the goalposts after losing an argument, it might do them more harm than good with public opinion when it comes to the question of what’s fair.

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