Public attitudes to inequality have changed

12:22 pm - January 8th 2009

by Louise Bamfield    

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How and in what ways public attitudes have been credit crunched?

As part of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Public Interest in Poverty Issues programme, the Fabian Society is currently conducting research exploring attitudes to inequality, and related policy responses. Early findings of the research so far (taken from a Fabian-YouGov opinion poll conducted last month and discussion groups held in London, Bristol, Sheffield and Glasgow over the last five months) provide some clues.

There are signs that media exposure of corporate excess and rewards for failure has started to shift the public mood, opening up space for political action that even three months ago would have looked untenable.

By being seen as violating a basic rule of fair reward, bankers have exposed the vagaries in pay and remuneration processes at the top. As a result, a clear majority of the public want to see tighter rules on corporate pay: 80% agree that bonuses should ‘reward long-term success rather than short-term performance’; 70% think that ordinary employees should be represented on the compensation committees which decide how much city executives get paid; while a small majority (56%) are even in favour of a more radical proposal, to make executives of failed companies ‘pay back their bonuses from the last two years’.

The government appears to have captured this popular mood by introducing a new higher top rate of tax of 45% for people earning over £150,000 – a move supported by 76% of the public (including strong support from almost half, at 46%). There is some evidence that the government could have gone further, with almost seven in ten respondents (69%) expressing support for a new top rate of 50% for people earning over £250,000.

Poll data also gives some clues as to people’s reasons for thinking the rich should contribute more, with 70% of respondents agreeing that ‘Those at the top are failing to pay their fair share towards investment in public services’. There was also astonishingly low support for the business case for low taxation, with only 19% of respondents agreeing that taxes on high earners should be kept low so that ‘British companies can attract the talent they need to succeed’.

As yet, the extraordinary events on the global financial markets have focused attention on people working in banking and related financial sectors, but have not resulted in a wider debate about economic inequality. As the threat of unemployment spreads more widely than at any point over the last decade, there is sympathy and support for people affected by the downturn, and temporarily at least, greater empathy and understanding towards people who have been laid off.

But despite this shift, we still see the same expectation as before, that anyone who is out of work will pick themselves up and get back into work as soon as possible.

To win the public argument for tackling inequality at both ends of the income spectrum, campaigners must broaden the debate about wage disparities and about how different types of work – and different types of contribution, paid and unpaid – are valued in society.

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About the author
This is a guest article. Louise Bamfield is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Westminster

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Reader comments

I guess this must be the REAL shock doctrine!

As the top rate they introduced is already having a negative revenue effect I doubt we can afford any more stupid posturing , unless we print some more money that is.

3. Mike Killingworth

I’m a little disappointed that the Fabian Society is copying the Government in releasing selective statistics – “early results” – to seek to shape the debate. Would it not be more ethical to release the full results, or if these are not yet available, to defer commenting until they are?

4. Sunder Katwala


I think the criticism is ill placed. I just don’t think there is an analogy with the flawed production of a set of government statistics (where the methodological rules agreed were not followed, and so the results were not robust as statistics) with the decision to produce an interim report from a major research project, which is quite common and legitimate. (We have done so on most of our extended projects, for example on our major Commissions on taxation and life chances).

In fact, the careful language of “early findings” reflects our concern to be very clear to readers. The precise methodology of both the groups and polling carried out to date and to follow and the fact that the JRF will publish the project final report later in 2009 are given in the published piece on which this web commentary draws.

We are reporting on findings after five months of focus groups and deliberative workshops, on the particular questions on which we can now report back on at an interim stage. A further poll is scheduled to address different issues but (unlike your statistics example) this does not mean that there is methodological work outstanding on the poll released here. The further deliberative research will go on to explore related and new questions arising from analysis of the first groups and workshops, as well as new issues scheduled for the final stages.

There is good infrastructure in place on research ethics and methodology for the project. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation itself has been involved in these decisions, and we jointly established an academic advisory council for the project. The project itself within the JRF Public Interest in Poverty issues was awarded to the Fabian Society after an open tender process involving universities, think-tanks and research institutes.

We have done so in the form of
(i) an essay for the Fabian Review (from which this brief piece is drawn)
(ii) to inform a panel discussion at our major New Year Conference on public attitudes.

1) Fairness and public attitudes to it is understandably the theme of our major conference, which is our biggest event each year, so the project was designed to have the opportunity to help to frame this discussion at an interim stage.

2), an interim output was always probable, prior to the project report in mid-2009, when this project was established early last year. The specific decision taken was to report, at the end of the year, on to what extent and in what ways there were changes in attitudes before and after September, given the major financial crisis which took place during this research project.

Both ourselves and the JRF felt there was a particular value to how reporting on this question was of most public value and salience, and were confident of the research methodology and ethics issues.

Of course, one-off polling is continually being commissioned and published by various sources, offering a snapshot of opinion. But we wanted to contextualise this by reporting on how the qualitative research could inform analysis of the polling results, as this provides greater depth to public understanding of the poll.

3), it would be impossible for the Fabian Society not to comment at all on issues of public attitudes to inequality, taxation, etc during the lifetime of the project: our previous work means that we are often approached about this.

We are among the organisations to do the most work on public attitudes to taxation so it is unsurprising that we would be a reference point for discussion when, for example, the top rate changed. (If in theory it might be possible to ensure we did not draw on anything we have found out from the current project, that would also be a little strange as it inevitably informs our general commentary).

Whatever’s left of my sociology training (and after three years, who can say?) tells me Sunder is right about this one. At every stage of an extensive research project you’re going to arrive at some ‘initial findings’, and providing a certain area of research is complete and methodologically sound (I suspect we’ve no worries on that score), there’s certainly nothing wrong in publishing it, particularly when – as in this case – the findings are politically relevant. Plus, y’know, it whets the appetite.

Out of interest, Sunder, how broad is the scope of the JRF/Fabians research? Is the focus solely on economic inequality as it relates to taxation, or are aspects of economic inequality – indeed, other forms of inequality – being considered? Also, are you delving into public attitudes to public spending/public services at all? I’m sure you saw the recent polling in (I think) the Independent which suggests an appetite for reduced public spending, and as that also has an impact on various forms of inequality (economic, educational, health etc), I wonder whether that would be a part of the discussion.

6. Mike Killingworth

[4] Thanks, Sunder. I appreciate that the FS and the JRF are being pulled in two directions: to say things that are both relevant and timely, and to sustain research probity. I really merely wanted to flag up the sensitivity of managing the balance at a time when there are – particularly on the Internet – plenty of people who are committed to trashing any data that doesn’t fit their right-wing narrative.

We are among the organisations to do the most work on public attitudes to taxation.

Its rather a self defeating project isn’t it ? ” Far left wing think tank claims public want higher taxes shock ! ” If you asked people if they thought they or the state knew best what to do with their money they would say well obviously I do. Ask them if ‘other’ people should pay more tax and they will say yes , if they think it means a transfer to them. As there is no revenue until you get into the middling you will eventually have to ask people who work hard for ordinary salaries if they would mind handing yet more of it over for charitable work decided upon by New Labour . The answer will be a resounding sod off .

And that aint never going to change

What on earth was the problem with that comment ? There has been , on this site some detailed discussion of the marginal rates of revenue from taxation with some agreement on the outlines . I fail utterly to see the point of sticking your fingers in your ears and repeating nah nah nah nah.
That Mr. Katwala is why socialism is feared and hated in this country !
And that aint never gonna change either

Neil, Mike – thanks for responses. Neil, the (vague) answer is broader. I will try to also reply with some of the key objectives and questions around which the attitudes work is framed (but don’t have these here).

Andrew Grice has an interesting column on this in The Independent tomorrow, including discussing reaction within government, broadly welcoming it, with John Denham stressing it is about opposition to unearned rewards, rather than general support for higher taxation

It’ll be interesting to see how many of those who have demonised single parents as dole scroungers for the last couple of decades will now attack them for irresponsibly leaving their children to wander the streets while they selfishly take work away from ‘hard working families’.

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