It is easy politics for Ed (or as the Independent calls him, David) Miliband to launch a new front in the class war against David Cameron, who he said is only interested in looking after the top 1%, and didn’t have “fairness” in his DNA. As Tim Montgomerie pointed out, that is in itself unfair – the government has launched a whole range of measures such as lifting the income tax threshold and linking the state pension to earnings that is specifically targeted at helping those on low incomes.
But there are two broader points here, which few Labour politicians seem able to get, but the British public and Conservative politicians do. The first is that for most people fairness isn’t just about tackling inequality, it is about being treated fairly. People on low incomes who have been waiting on the housing list a long time tend not to see anything fair about people who have just arrived in the country jumping to the top of the waiting list, because their need is greater. My guess that this sense of fairness is actually far more deeply held by the British than the dislike of inequality – they don’t mind someone being rich, so long as they deserve it.
The second point on fairness is that most people – and certainly left wing politicians and commentators – confuse the intention of a policy with its outcome. When Labour politicians talk about fairness, they often think of a generous welfare state – but if high levels of benefits mean that work doesn’t pay for a large group of people, and instead helps create an underclass that is (to use Tony Blair’s wording) “languishing on benefits” with little hope or prospects, then it is difficult to see what is fair about it. Likewise, they may believe that old-style comprehensive schools are fairest, but it is difficult to see what is fair about “bog standard comprehensives” (another Labour phrase) pouring out pupils from low income households with poor literacy and numeracy. Labour politicians tend to focus on the intention behind a policy, while Conservatives tend to focus on the real world outcomes – which are ultimately what matters most (as anyone who has travelled the road to hell can tell you).
Like many Conservative supporters, I believe fairness is very important, but it is the sort of fairness the British people believe in, and what matters to me (and indeed to those affected) is not rhetoric about fairness but policies that actually in the real world help people who are not able to help themselves. As Iain Duncan Smith's work on social justice has highlighted, the evidence of the past decades is that Labour policies do little to help tackle unfairness, but a lot to exacerbate it. Tony Blair and his new Labour followers understood much of this, but it is clearly lost on Ed Miliband.