Brexit. The culture wars. Partygate. The north-south divide. Increasing poverty and hardship amid the cost-of-living crisis. The unequal impact of COVID. It’s all too easy to find reasons to believe that we live in a fractured and divided society, as we reflect on where we are as a nation during the week that we celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
But when you ask people what they think, you hear another side to the story. There is common ground. In 2020, More in Common’s report, Britain’s Choice, concluded that people can come together around the goal of building a fair society: “there is a consensus on the need to address inequality that transcends political divisions and reflects majority views... what is striking is how much common ground there is between those who emphasise systemic inequality and those who emphasise personal responsibility… most believe that the economy does not afford enough opportunity for those who work hard and want to get ahead… [and] integrate a belief in personal responsibility [with] the need to do more to reduce inequality."
Can we build a consensus, on the foundations of this common ground, around what fairness looks like, and how to achieve it?
Fairness feels like a potentially unifying concept. But it has been hamstrung by the absence of a shared understanding of what it means, and a common language for talking about it.
Enter the Fairness Foundation. We launched last year, with the goal of inspiring people around the UK to work together to create a fairer society. Beforehand we had spent months talking to policy experts and specialists in everything from philosophy to public attitudes, from across the political spectrum, to come up with a definition of fairness that could attract broad public support.
In November we published The Fair Necessities, which proposed five components of fairness:
- Fair essentials - Everyone should have their basic needs met so no-one lives in poverty, and everyone can play a constructive role in society
- Fair opportunities – Barriers that prevent people from having equal opportunities should be removed so everyone has a decent chance to succeed in life
- Fair rewards - Everyone’s hard work should be rewarded on the basis of their contribution to our society and economy
- Fair exchange - Everyone should contribute to society by paying the taxes they owe, and should be supported by society when they need it
- Fair treatment - Everyone should be treated according to need, and should enjoy equal respect and influence on decisions made in their name
All well and good, but what do the public think?
We surveyed a representative sample of over 3,000 Britons last month, with More in Common and Public First, and found that there is very strong support for this agenda. Overall, 74 per cent of the public agree with the five ‘fair necessities’. This support holds up across the political divide and across regions, generations, ethnicities and income groups.
What is particularly striking is the strong consensus about the need to reduce inequality in order to build a society of fairer opportunities, with 83 per cent of the British public wanting to reduce inequality in British society. Even Conservative voters prefer reducing inequality to letting the market dictate outcomes by a factor of more than two to one.
It’s clear that most people think that society is unfair (only 27 per cent disagree). Only 21 per cent think that everyone is treated with equal respect, no matter who they are or how much money they have; and only 14 per cent think that people at the top have earned their position, and people at the bottom have brought their situation upon themselves.
There’s also plenty of common ground on how to build a fairer society. Our polling shows strong support for more state intervention to help those most affected by the cost-of-living crisis and other inequalities. Sixty-two per cent think the Government should do more to ensure people can meet their basic needs, and 68 per cent want the Government to make sure everyone pays their fair share of taxes. It’s no wonder that the Chancellor and Prime Minister felt obliged to bring in a windfall tax to finance extra payments to help people with the cost of living.
The public are hungry for a new, positive vision of Britain, and it’s clear from our polling that fairness, as a powerful unifying concept, should be at its heart. And we now have a definition of fairness that can act as the basis of a shared understanding of the concept.
The full survey results are on our website. Later this year we will publish the UK’s first ever fairness index, to paint a more detailed picture of how fair society is now, and to suggest practical and popular solutions that can build a fairer country.