Looking first at fairness – since the coalition was formed this has been something of a yardstick for the government. Initially at least they put a lot of effort into attempting to show that cuts were being made in a fair way. The importance of this is underlined by this poll – asked which two or three values people most wanted to see from political parties, the two top ranked values by some distance are economic responsibility and fairness (59% and 50% respectively). What actually is “fairness” in this context though? Or more specifically, what do the general public understand it to mean in political terms?
The main theme of the polling seems to be that people see fairness more in terms of reciprocity not equality. Whatever politicians mean when they talk about fairness, in the eyes of the public, to be fair seems to be about giving people what they deserve. Hence 85% agree that in a fair society income should depend on how hard people work and how talented they are, only 41% agree that in a fair society no one should get an income a lot bigger or smaller than anyone else. 73% agree with the statement that “You can have a fair society even if people’s incomes are quite unequal, as long as you have equality of opportunity”.Giving people a forced choice between a definition of fairness in terms of reciprocity (“those who do the wrong thing are punished and those who do the right thing are rewarded”) and in terms of equality (“treating people equally and having an equal distribution of wealth and income”) the first one was chosen by 63% to 26%.
Turning to perceptions of poverty, the public’s perception of poverty seems to lie closer to absolute terms, rather than the relative terms that are more commonly used by politicians and charities and pressure groups working in the sector. Asked what they thought was the best description of being “in poverty”, 70% said people were in poverty if they didn’t have the basic essentials of life (“a place to live, or enough to eat or live on”). Only 18% thought people with a place to live and enough to live on, but nothing else was a better description of poverty, only 7% that it meant people who had the essentials to live upon, but not enough to buy those things others took for granted.
There is also widespread agreement with the concept of “deserving” and “undeserving poor” – 71% of people think that there are some poor people are more deserving than others, and help should be concentrated on them. That said, people clearly don’t dismiss the idea that many people are poor through the hand life dealt them rather than their own fault – asked which of a number of experiences are most likely to lead to people ending up in poverty later in life, three of the top four were growing up with parents who were addicts, unemployed or abusive.
Attitudes towards benefits for the unemployed generally remain pretty robust. 50% think out of work benefits are too high, and discourage people from finding work, 70% think people on jobseekers allowance who refuse work or fail to attend interviews should lose half or more of their their benefits (YouGov also asked people whether this should apply to people in various family circumstances – they were more sympathetic to people with dependent children, with most respondents thinking they should lose at most a small proportion of their benefits for not seeking work, and for carers, who a majority thought should not face any sanctions for not looking for work). 80% agree with the idea that people who have been out of work for 12 months should be required to do community work in return for their benefits.
Turning to tax breaks or benefits for children produce some interesting results. People are broadly split on the idea of giving tax benefits to people with children (44% agree, 47% disagree), but opposed to giving people higher benefits for having children (by 36% to 55%) – I suspect the latter on is a case of repondents thinking about extra means tested benefits for people with children, rather than some hitherto undetected dislike of the existing child benefit provisions! 66% of people would support limiting child benefit to the first three children only.
In terms of marriage, people are pretty evenly split on the principle of whether the government should be encouraging marriage through the benefit system – 40% think they should, 45% think they should not. However, they are more supportive of the idea of the government discouraging people from becoming single parents, 59% think they should be discouraging it, 31% disagree.
Finally there are some questions on how people view their income compared to Britain as a whole, and how people view their social class. In terms of income YouGov asked people to say how they fitted in to a scale where 1 was the poorest tenth of people in Britain, and 10 was the richest tenth. People has a strong tendency to cluster towards the low-mid range. Only 24% of people saw themselves as being in the richest half of the population, 72% saw themselves in the poorest half. Virtually no one was of the impression that they were in the richest 20% of British people and at the other end of the scale, 9% of people thought they were in the poorest 20%.
This is important in terms of things like the “squeezed middle” (most people tend to see themselves as being in the middle, even when they aren’t), and support for taxes on the more affluent (most people think there are loads of people much richer than themselves, even when there aren’t).
In terms of class, 48% of people percieve themselves as working class (36% working class, 12% upper working class), 42% perceive themselves to be middle class (17% lower middle class, 23% middle class, 2% upper middle class). Note that people’s perceptions don’t tally particularly well with the occupation based socal class classifications used for ABC1C2DE cross breaks – amongst ABC1 people 55% self-identify as middle class, 38% as working class. Amongst C2DEs, 62% self-identify as working class, 28% as middle class.
(On unrelated matters, there is a “New” Harris poll on AV in the Metro today showing YES on 31%, NO on 32%. However, the fieldwork for it was conducted well over a fortnight ago, so it was week earlier than the YouGov and ICM polls showing a big shift towards NO. For obvious reasons, it can’t tell us anything about the current state of opinion)