I blogged recently about George Lakoff’s ideas about framing and how conservatives present their ideas in a way that appeals to the frames that all people have to a greater or lesser degree. Applying this to the concept of ‘fairness’, I think conservatives frame things in a very odd way, but it does seem to chime with a lot of people. Here’s three examples in which this type of framing is used:
1. It’s not fair that someone on benefits should earn more than someone working, so we should cut benefits.
2. It’s not fair that when private sector workers no longer have decent pensions, public sector workers do, so we should cut public sector pensions.
3. When private sector wages are stagnating, it’s not fair that public sector workers should be different, so we should cut public sector wages.
The message here is:
“Government is powerless to do anything about pay and conditions in the private sector, so the only thing it can do is to level the playing field by hitting public sector pay and conditions as well.”
The Labour Party accept all these propositions as far as I can tell, but all of these propositions could easily be reframed with a progressive slant:
1. It’s not fair that someone on benefits should earn more than someone working, so we ensure jobs pay enough to provide a decent standard of living.
2. It’s not fair that when private sector workers no longer have decent pensions, public sector workers do, so we should sort out the scandal that is the market for private pensions.
3. When private sector wages are stagnating, it’s not fair that public sector workers should be different, so we should ensure that wages rise in line with productivity and growth.
I think both progressives and conservatives would agree that the situation in all three propositions is unfair (work should pay, pensions should be decent), but it’s the fairness of the solution that is the difference, and that rests upon your belief (or not) in the ability of government to come up with positive rather than negative solutions to these issues.
The idea of “I’m being screwed so I don’t see why anyone else should get away with it”, seems a popular one, surely a more popular idea would be “You’re being screwed, so let’s do something to change that”? Governments can and should do something about all three of the points of unfairness I raised, but what would that “something” look like?
The issue generating the unfairness around points 1 & 3 is one of jobs. Or lack of them. There are always (even in better times) many more people looking for work than there are jobs. This means employers don’t really need to compete for workers, and so wages have lagged behind gains in productivity. Competition is good we are always told, so why not some more competition in the labour market? This could be achieved if the government was willing to create jobs for those unable to find regular jobs and pay them a decent wage. At a stroke, this would pressure the private sector to improve its offer to workers, and it would widen the gap between what you could get on benefits and what you could get in work.
And what about pensions? Private pensions seem to me to be a bit of a con. The fund managers skim off huge fees for doing not very much, and the value you get from your pension depends upon the vagaries of the financial markets. Part of pensioners income is also derived from government bonds, so the government is already heavily involved in private pensions. The government already very successfully administers and pays the state pension to millions, and it could also cope with paying earnings-related pensions to all upon retirement. We could then do away with a lot of pension fund managers and their fees and a whole chunk of people’s monthly income could be spent rather than saved, raising employment in the process.
Those are a couple of ideas then (there are undoubtedly other ways of achieving the goal or more and better paying jobs and better pensions). From where I’m standing, it should be relatively easy to reframe the fairness debate. Everyone knows they are being screwed. This is why Labour’s “cost of living crisis” resonates. The only problem is that they don’t really have any solutions at the moment. They agree with cutting social security, don’t have any ideas on jobs and won’t do anything about pensions. The “cost of living” line could take them to much more radical places, but seem to lack either the vision or (more likely) the will to go there.