Visions of fairness: what the voters say they want

“Local” and “fair” are two of the most commonly used words by Liberal Democrats (and others) when trying to persuade the public to vote for a candidate or the party. On Saturday I talked about some of the evidence showing why “local” is such a powerful message, but what about “fair”?

A recent YouGov poll for Policy Exchange asked people what values they most want a political party to reflect. “Economic responsibility” came out top with 59% mentioning it and “fairness” was not that far behind on 50%. No other possible value was mentioned by more than a third of people. Amongst Liberal Democrats, fairness was rated even higher. For example, amongst those who voted for the party in May 2010 it just pipped economic responsibility by 60% – 59% (given the margins of error, this is a statistical dead heat).

Fairness or equality?

Fairness scored far better than equality, which got 21% overall and 26% amongst Lib Dem 2010 voters. It also did far better than some of the other values that are particular important to Liberal Democrat members (freedom/liberty – 20% overall, 22% amongst Lib Dem 2010 voters; tolerance and diversity 14% / 22% and environmentalism 11% / 17%). Those findings are a good example of why smart campaigners think not only of what matters to them but also of the evidence as to how best to present that to voters. Values such as tolerance may score low on their own, but present them as features of fairness and the ability to persuade the public is transformed.

But what are people thinking of when they talk of fairness? Far more about people getting appropriate rewards for what they do than about the overall levels of equality it would seem, judging from another batch of answers in the poll.

63% of people (and 67% of 2010 Lib Dems) agree that “in a fair society, people’s incomes should depend on how much other people value the services they provide” and 85% (89%) agree that “in a fair society, people’s incomes should depend on how hard they work and how talented they are”.

By comparison, it’s down to 41% (51%) agreeing that “in a fair society, nobody should get an income a lot bigger or a lot smaller than anybody else gets”. That 51% amongst 2010 Lib Dems compares with 53% amongst people currently intending to vote Lib Dem – suggesting that the political changes since the election have not changed the party’s support base in this respect at least. (In fact, it’s one of the interesting findings of this poll that, whilst other research has suggested the Lib Dems have particularly lost support on the left, moving the political centre of gravity amongst its current voters a little to the right, looking through this poll the conception of fairness amongst Lib Dem voters in May 2010 and now is much in the same in many important ways.)

For both the public and Liberal Democrats, fairness then is important – but more in the sense of equality of opportunity than equality of outcome. As other questions in the survey show, fairness is seen not just as being about those who deserve it getting their rewards, but also those who don’t deserve it, not getting rewarded anyway.

That’s important because it points towards an area of pragmatic agreement on some policies between people with different views of fairness. Take the parallel with identity cards. Campaigns against ID cards have been at their strongest where they have married up those who objected to ID cards on principle with those who object on practical grounds; campaigns have been at their weakest when those who object on principle turned up their noses at practical arguments or those making them.

Corporate pay

There is a lesson there for those campaigning on, for example, the extremely high levels of corporate pay in some sectors where pay levels are not closely related to the performance of firms. Some may object in principle to very high pay. Others may object to it being undeserving as the pay is not a reward for good work; it’s a reward for any sort of work. Successful campaigning on corporate pay will most likely come from seeking out and using the common ground between those perspectives.

Case for education needs making

The way in which different motivations can lead to support for similar policies is shown by the question asking what governments can do to create a fairer society. The most effective option, according to both Labour and Tory voters, is to reduce unemployment. Amongst Lib Dems, reducing taxes on lower earners just has it though reducing unemployment features strongly.  Notable by its mid-table appearance is improving state schools. The link between state school performance and fairness may be widely accepted across the political spectrum within political and policy circles; it’s a case that still needs making to the public.

A footnote: on a similar theme to a different poll I reported before – only 2% said they think they are amongst the richest 30% of people in Britain.

A second footnote: for a slightly different perspective on these research findings, see jedibeeftrix’s blog.

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Simon McGrath 2nd May '11 - 11:54am

    Mark, I think there are two other strands to the research which are important. The first is the very strong views on welfare and what people mean by poverty. For example 50% of people think that benefits are too high and discourage unemployed from finding jobs (45% among LD voters) , 89% of people think that people who have been out of work for 12 months should be required to do community work (89% among LD voters) and a very clear view that poverty is an absolute measure not a relative one ( 70 % agreed that poverty was when you do not have a place to live or enough to live on (72% LD voters)). There are other findings along the same lines which helps to explain why the Coalition reforms to welfare have caused relatively little political fallout.

    The other point which you do mention but I think has some very clear policy implications is about unemployment. This is seen as a very big problem with clear social effects. For example when asked what experiences are likely to lead to someone experiencing poverty in later life ‘Growing up with parents who are unemployed’ is the third highest and reducing unemployment is (45%) seen as the most important step to a fairer society. I would draw the conclusion that job creation, even of socially useful jobs in exchange for benefits should be a very high priority for the Coalition

  • We talk a lot about fairness so it is interesting to know what the public and our voters think fairness is. We should be able to agree with people getting appropriate rewards according to what they do and how good they are at it. We have a tradition of seeing at objectionable that people can have large incomes while doing little or no work.

    We can only hope that with the majority of people believing that the most effective way to create a fairer society is to reduce unemployment that the government will pursue policies to achieve this. I wish everyone agreed that we should try to get back to full employment. This is normally defined as there only being 2% unemployment and I believe that gives a target for reducing unemployment down to about 600,000.

    Alex M makes a valid point about evidence and we need to try to educate people about how things really are. The results Alex M talks about regarding sanctions are interesting. I would love us to reject the sanctioning of people by them losing all their benefits and the only sanctions available would be to reduce benefits to only cover basic needs, such as food, clothing, housing, energy (gas and electric) and transport. There has been research that concludes that the subsistence level of income is higher than the rates of income support or the standard amount the government says a person or family can live on.

    Simon McGrath wrote, “I would draw the conclusion that job creation, even of socially useful jobs in exchange for benefits should be a very high priority for the Coalition.

    Just “in exchange for benefits” would be wrong; even if it were benefits plus all the extra costs of working I think it would be wrong. I believe that a person working should be better off than when not working and so they need to be rewarded above their benefit level and extra cost level.

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