UK Politics

Politicians and the pursuit of 'fairness'

Fairnes composite picture

In the 1980s a popular brand of chocolates was advertised on TV with the slogan: "All the fun, all the fun, all the fun of the fair."

As the words were sung, a giant tub of the sweets was hoisted in the air.

Hundreds of glittery, wrapped strawberry creams, toffees and the like fell to the floor, to be devoured by ecstatic children.

Yes, it was like a fair [ie a fairground], but it also, undeniably, brought fairness. Everyone had a share.

Times are not so much fun now but that F-word - fairness - is everywhere again.

Politicians from Barack Obama to Nick Clegg have promised to work towards it - even as wage freezes, relatively high inflation, rising unemployment and falling GDP have an impact on people's standard of living in the UK.

Austerity - and the need to bring down the budget deficit - need not breed greater inequality, they argue.

'Reclaim'

In a speech seemingly aimed at distancing his party from the Conservatives, Mr Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said he would lobby the chancellor to make the system "fairer" and make the rich pay their "fair share" to the state.

He implored the coalition to act "faster" to raise the threshold at which income tax is paid to £10,000 a year.

The government is already promising to do this by the next election, scheduled for 2015, so it could happen sooner.

But Mr Clegg wants to go "further". Does this mean the threshold will rise higher? Will there be any clues in March's Budget?

Whatever the vagaries, Mr Clegg's speech was an attempt to set out his party's distinctive role in the coalition, perhaps with one eye on a future time when it will have to fight the Tories at a general election once more.

Those on the right in politics have "less of an emphasis on using the tax system to create greater equality", he argued.

Although his political circumstances are very different, Mr Clegg is fighting a similar ideological battle to Barack Obama, seeking re-election against whichever candidate the Republican Party chooses.

In his State of the Union Address last Monday, the US president equated fairness to national identity.

Mr Obama said: "We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by.

"Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

"What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them."

'False premise'

For those of a certain age, it is reminiscent of the phrase "British fair play".

At the start of the year David Cameron said he wanted a "fairer, better society, where if you work hard and do the right thing you get rewarded".

Last week he defended plans for a benefits cap as "a basic issue of fairness", with the Department for Work and Pensions saying it would help "bring fairness back into the welfare system".

But opponents in the Lords of the plan to include child benefit payments within the cap cried "unfairness".

Image caption Not every £2m-plus house looks like this

Politicians are all claiming to be on the side of the little guy.

Labour's Ed Miliband praises the "squeezed middle". Mr Clegg wants to reach out to "alarm clock-Britain". Mr Cameron defends "hard-working families".

But Ryan Bourne, head of economic research at the centre-right think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies, is sceptical.

He said: "Who's ever going to campaign against fairness?"

Mr Bourne told the BBC: "The idea that the government can influence fairness is based on a false premise. That is that the government is able to select areas of the economy or different social groups who are more deserving or worthy...

"Fairness is more about the idea that what you get out is proportional to what you put in."

But does fairness offer at least some hope in difficult times?

Mr Bourne said: "The economic conditions mean that politicians don't really talk about GDP or wealth, as it's not going up. They are forced to talk about other things.

"The appeal of 'fairness' is that everyone has their own view of what it means in their head. It has an intuitive appeal."

Another feature of Mr Clegg's speech is that it targets tax avoiders, claiming they could bring in billions of pounds to compensate for the raising of the basic tax threshold.

'Penal rate'

It reiterates the Lib Dem policy of introducing a "mansion tax" for owners of homes worth more than £2m. That would buy a mansion in some parts of the country, but not others.

Labour says Mr Clegg has a bit of a "cheek" using the language of fairness, when VAT has risen and child benefit has been frozen.

But Mr Clegg dismisses the Left's attitude: "Socialists will support a penal rate of tax on the highest earners, simply because it makes them poorer."

Professionals and business people who have worked long hours to service a mortgage - while paying the most income tax - would argued they are being penalised.

Max Wind-Cowie, of the left-leaning think-tank Demos, said: "There is such a thing as fairness. But what politicians always try and do is pretend that it's a clear idea pointing in whatever way their prejudices lie.

"That's equality on the left or meritocracy or 'just deserts' on the right. But for most people it's an amalgam of different things.

"The thing that has always seemed to be missing is reciprocity, that what you put in has results in what you get back."

'Struggling'

Mr Wind-Cowie thinks many middle-income voters will like the plans to put a £26,000 cap on non-working families' benefits, but are "resentful" about the ending of child benefit from next year for any household in which one parent earns more than about £44,000.

He said: "People in that category, some of them, are very well off. But it also contains many working families who are struggling to get by.

"You're talking about a category of people who clearly feel very hard done by from the deal they get from the welfare state. They often contribute more in taxes from those at the bottom and those at the top.

"People are recognising the economic realities of the way the welfare state is structured. In a time of hardship, the issue of fairness has come more to the fore.

"What I would urge politicians to do is, when they talk about fairness, to back that up. The end point of bringing up the income tax threshold would be to raise it to the level of the minimum wage, and that's about £13,000 a year."

Whatever Mr Clegg's income tax pledges come to in reality, not everyone will be pleased.

Times are tough and the "sweeties" will have to be rationed.

But, unlike a parent talking to a moaning child, politicians are not allowed to say those three little defeatist words: "Life's Not Fair."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites