Shooting the canaries
Winter is coming. Strikes described as ”a grassroots revolt of working people” loom across the public and private sectors, including nurses. The Times reports that “health and defence officials are drawing up plans for armed forces personnel to keep the NHS moving this winter” for the first time (due to strike action) in 33 years. Right-leaning newspapers have apparently been fishing for quotes from charities representing patients, hoping that they will criticise nurses for striking.
Such a tactic is a good example of what I call fairwashing - using fairness to justify the perpetuation of a deeply unfair status quo. It zooms in on one narrow aspect of fairness - often, including in this case, fair process. It’s unfair, goes the argument, that some patients might suffer substandard or delayed care because nurses are on strike, in apparent defiance of their contractual obligations.
Of course, there is an element of truth to this argument. But it deliberately obscures a much bigger truth. The strikes are an act of desperation, a last-ditch attempt to force change when other avenues have been exhausted. In the long term, all of us, as patients or future patients, will suffer from a broken NHS which is understaffed, and whose staff are underpaid and overworked. Here, fairness lifts its gaze from the tunnel-vision focus on process and takes in a broader and more fundamental landscape (what we call the Fair Necessities). For example, can everyone meet their basic needs (in this case, by accessing a minimum standard of healthcare)? Is everyone rewarded fairly for their contribution to society and the economy? (For more, see our article from June about the rail strikes.)
This is a debate about the social contract, not about the employment contract. Many are worried that today’s inequalities in healthcare provision might grow to the point that we have a two-tier healthcare system at some point in the coming years, in a final repudiation of the founding principles of the the NHS. And it’s not just about the delivery of healthcare services; we looked in the Fairness Index at how socio-economic inequality leads to health inequalities, which means that the richest 10% in the UK enjoy an average of 18.5 years more healthy life than the poorest 10%. Last week the Royal College of GPs said that doctors are suffering “moral distress” at their powerlessness to do more to help the most vulnerable.
Moderates of the world, rise up
The debate about strikes has a parallel in the arguments about the rights and wrongs of recent environmental protests by Just Stop Oil and other groups that have grown out of Extinction Rebellion. Here, too, fairwashing arguments are deployed by the media to distract attention from the fundamental issues towards narrow, short-term process considerations. What is undeniable, though, is that these groups are failing to build support among a large segment of the public.
This is where last week’s launch of the Moderate Flank Initiative is so promising. We previewed it last month, and now it’s up and running. It’s an incubator, providing “thought-leadership, practical assistance and portfolio funding” to people working towards building a ‘moderate flank’ in response to the climate crisis. There are two core insights. The first is that we need to recognise and share the reality that the target of 1.5°C has slipped from our collective grasp. The second is that we need to give many more people more ways to contribute towards the urgent work needed to reduce the extent of climate breakdown, and to adapt to the impacts that are already baked in. At present, people have two options - to reduce their personal carbon footprints, and to become an activist. But millions could be encouraged to do something more collective and fundamental than tweaking their own emissions, without having to glue their hands to a Renaissance masterpiece or a motorway gantry.
Persuading the polarised
Six weeks ago, the US journalist Anand Giridharadas published The Persuaders: Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age (review, interview). It’s a useful reminder of some of the ways in which progressives fail to communicate effectively outside their bubble, base, choir, whatever you want to call it. What I took from it is that progressives need to better understand (or remember, or act on) three lessons:
- People with different views are complicated, and there are opportunities to engage on common values, views, priorities, concerns, fears, hopes etc; swing voters aren’t in the middle but are torn between two alternatives, don’t have fully baked views, and can be persuaded to see the world in either progressive or regressive terms; they need to be persuaded that the progressive worldview is more ‘normal’ (when people get frightened, they skew right; when they feel compassion and common cause with their fellow humans, they skew left)
- Progressives don’t do a good enough job of helping people to make sense of today’s world, unlike the right; they need to get people to talk about their programme and issues, not just to vote for specific parties or policies, and the most important issues aren’t necessarily the ones that will get people talking and changing theirs and others’ views the most
- Selling people a watered-down policy in the hope of appealing to the centre ground will fail at every level and with every audience; it is better to copy the tactics of those on the right and to sell a bold policy effectively (show what the world would look like, ie a vision, and engage with people’s emotions and hopes and fears, with their values and beliefs, by telling stories and framing narratives effectively)
Where the parties stand
Courtesy of Paul Lee at the Sense of Fairness blog, we’ve been alerted to some polling that Lord Ashcroft has published. As Paul writes, it’s notable that respondents were asked whether the Conservative and Labour parties ‘stand for fairness’. The results aren’t good for the Tories (4% answered this question in the affirmative), but not brilliant for Labour either (29%). Of course, much depends on what definition of fairness people have in mind when they answer this question. Paul concludes by pointing out that there is an opportunity here for both parties: “seizing and deploying the language of fairness and expressing it through policies could resonate deeply with voters over the next couple of years. Either party could use the concept as a rallying point, indeed potentially a focal point for their manifesto. Will either rise to that challenge?”
And the people?
Today, the End Child Poverty coalition have published We‘re Skint, a report detailing the experience of 16 to 25 year olds in relation to the cost of living crisis, which found that 97% felt that the rising cost of living was a problem for young people, while 98% were worried about their future.
Meanwhile, useful reports have been launched in the last week by IPPR (on how public attitudes to immigration are warming), On Road Media (on how to talk about social security effectively), and Climate Outreach (reviewing the evidence base on messages about climate that engage all segments of the British population).
Finally, a reminder that we’d like to hear your views about where the most interesting and important gaps are in the evidence base about public attitudes to issues related to fairness (which could be about any topic). If you have views on this, please fill in our survey or share it with colleagues. Thank you!
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