1 “We’re all in this together”
2 “Society is more unequal”
3 “The Government has to do something about it”
Today I want to draw together three different strands of arguments, each of which have been running through my recent posts.
- Have we all been in it together during the Covid crisis?
- Has society become more unequal?
- Should the Government do something about it?
If the centre ground of public opinion answers these three disarmingly simple questions with a ‘yes’, then it’s very likely that policy and politics will change after the coming very elongated end to the current pandemic crisis.
Interestingly the Government has played a significant part in answering these questions themselves.
In almost his every press conference and announcement the Prime Minister has underlined his belief that we are all in this together. He tries to unify millions of experiences into a single national one as often as possible. And indeed for many people there is already a strong feeling of being in it together. He amplifies that feeling of togetherness. Families are anxious for their older relatives. Parents are anxious about the impact on their kids. So their feeling that this is a universal experience is being reinforced by the Government.
Predisposing the answer to the first question to be, ‘yes this is an experience which we have all been in together’.
The second question is the most contentious – and most probably the answer to it will be crucial in determining future policy and politics.
Intellectually we all know that there are many bits of evidence that argue inequality has worsened during the crisis.
- Most graphically, Covid morbidity and mortality has been worse in poorer areas resulting in a higher proportion of poor people dying from the virus.
- Other data streams indicate a worsening inequality in school attainment.
- For some insecurity in the labour market has got worse.
- The degree of want amongst poorer families has got worse.
- Housing insecurity has got worse for some.
Those of us that are better off have had a difficult time during the crisis but we have been both less likely to catch the virus and to die; our kids are more likely to have continued learning and our jobs and homes have been more secure. And our worries about food have been mostly confined to hoping our favourite restaurant will do takeaways.
So what does the centre of public opinion feel about the current existence of inequality?
I’ve mentioned before that in September 1939 the fear of bombing saw 3 million urban children evacuated to rural England. This was a physical experience which brought inequality to many country kitchens. Organised by people who ran rural civil society, these mainly working-class kids were placed with families that had never seen anything like it. Their language was different from their rural contemporaries, as was the food they ate and the clothes they wore. The experience of inequality was stark (at a time when we were apparently ‘all in this together’). Many felt that this mass experience of inequality was a key factor in determining public opinion about inequality after the war.
I mention this because we don’t share a similar experience of the Covid crisis. In fact over the last year we have experienced fewer of these inequalities in our day to day lives. And it’s no good us – as readers and writer of this blog – saying to ourselves that these inequalities are obvious – they aren’t.
But during the crisis – and partly because of the idea that we are all in this together – the media have been showing many more examples of inequality. Life expectancy in our country has been very unequal for years. Now it features on the news nearly every day.
The inequality of children’s meals has been around for ages. I mentioned last week the power of the TV photos of the box of lunch ingredients that were provided to feed a child for a week. Any parent seeing that considered how difficult it would be to feed their children with only that. That was an experience of inequality brought about by some emotion and a box of veg and cheese sandwiches.
The fact that poorer people on zero hours contracts have to go to work or have no money (which, let’s face it, is another fact that has been around for quite a while) – emphasises the improbability of those same people self-isolating and consequently being broke. For some self-isolation means no money and the sack. For others it’s an inconvenience.
The question is, as we go through the coming year of messy diminution of the impact of Covid, is whether the centre of public opinion will feel that inequalities have increased during the crisis.
The Government is not in a position to say that there are no important inequalities in our society. They were elected on a promise to level up poorer towns in the North of England. Whichever way you look at it, if you need to level up you are recognising existing inequality. As a Government they are going to have to confirm the existence of inequality every week – because they are determined to level up.
The answer to the final question about whether the Government should do something about it is the most complex. This Government did not come to power with the intention of reinvigorating and renewing the post-war welfare state’s drive to diminish inequality. It was not searching for ways to develop modern family allowances and new ways of increasing sickness benefit. Boris Johnson did not come into politics to be the new Beveridge.
But during the crisis the Prime Minister has said again and again that he wants to put his arms around everyone in society and protect them from the worst repercussions of the crisis. He has argued that this is a job for Government.
If it is a job for Government to put its arms around everyone in 2020 – why not in 2022? That was the problem for the Conservative Party in 1945. Having played a role in running a state which intervened in everyone’s life including making sure rationing provided as much equality as possible in the food everyone ate – how could that same Government say that it would not be their job to do anything about inequality in 1946? In the 1945 election, after a wartime of saying we were all in it together, the Conservative Party tried to, and was rejected.
By extending the responsibilities of the state during 2020 Boris Johnson has made it hard for him to say ‘it’s nothing to do with us guv’.
He has also committed the state to levelling up the inequalities in working class northern towns. The Government talk longingly of getting back to that agenda and much of it will involve “doing something about” levelling up people’s lives.
In those circumstances it will be hard for the Government say that our job is to diminish inequality in Bishop Auckland but not in Birmingham.
It’s true that the Conservative Party contains many different opinions. Famously in the October debate on school meals Brendan Clarke-Smith, MP for Bassetlaw, in rejecting the state’s role in providing food for school children said “ I do not believe in nationalising children”.
This is a consistent with a strand in the Conservative Party. It is nothing to do with us guv. But as of today that strand of Conservative thinking probably does not run the Government.
It would appear that the centre of public opinion does feel we have all been in it together, that there may well be increasing inequality. And its likely they think that the Government – some Government – should do something about it.
That spells the possibility of big changes.