At some point in the not-too-distant future, informally or formally, the country will undertake a comprehensive Fairness Audit of the Coronavirus crisis.
People will ask whether certain groups suffered disproportionately – through no fault of their own – and whether privileged groups in some way dodged hardship or abused their position. Trevor Phillips is already looking at the impact of the pandemic on BAME communities.
It’s easy to overstate the impact of even very significant events on the political world. How often does public opinion change fundamentally and rapidly? Rarely. But given this crisis is likely to cost tens of thousands of lives and the livelihoods of many more, this Fairness Audit will surely change British politics for the foreseeable future.
What will this Fairness Audit show? Time will tell but, amongst many, certainly five things.
Firstly, most importantly, that BAME communities, and less affluent communities more generally (there’s some overlap here, but not total), bore the brunt of the pain in both health and financial terms. Deaths will be higher and physical health costs higher; redundancies and cancelled work contracts will be more prevalent, as will rental disputes and problems with failures of national and local welfare and care.
Secondly, it’ll show that, while neighbourhood ties might have been strengthened across the country, these won’t have been enough in many communities to prevent tragic cases of neglect. Furthermore, while we seem to have a good sense of the number of people who have died in hospitals, we’re yet to hear the full story from care homes and other care-giving institutions. As a society, we will unlikely be able to collectively pat ourselves on the back.
Thirdly, thinking about the economy, we’re also likely to find that those on PAYE were protected in ways that struggling business owners and the self-employed were not. The Government moved fast to protect those in steady employment, but has understandably been grappling with the more complex nature of self-employment and business ownership, where salaries and dividends vary wildly in a given year. It’s hard not to imagine that very large numbers of small and medium sized businesses will go bust in the coming weeks. Many of these will be small businesses like hair salons, run by people that struggle week to week.
Fourthly, we’re likely to hear that significant numbers of businesses furloughed staff (or made redundancies in the recovery period) while protecting executive pay and / or bonuses. There have been some high profile stories of celebrities criticised for furloughing while sitting on great personal wealth. Some of these stories are unfair; individuals can’t be expected to run their entire life savings down to pay staff wages. It’s harder to defend those large businesses that have leadership teams protecting their own pay (regardless of how that is defined), while forcing pay cuts on others.
Fifthly, clearly, we’re also likely to hear that large numbers of massive businesses have made vast profits during the crisis – while never dealing with historic accusations that they have treated staff and suppliers poorly, or accusations they have avoided tax unfairly. You can see this unfolding for some as a slow-moving car crash.
Of course, we’ve lived with inequality for many years. And, of course, many politicians have been pointing this out. But the Coronavirus pandemic changes the context beyond recognition. Rightly or wrongly, in the past the mass of the public did not believe inequality was the direct result of unfairness. As I’ve written here many times, fairness is one of the great drivers of opinion amongst the mass of working class and lower middle class voters that make up the bulk of the electorate. It would be too much to suggest they have always thought people get what they deserve; but it’s certainly true to say these voters think hard work mostly pays.
As they look at the country post-Corona, the mass of the public will see how people were treated and / or affected differently during a crisis they had no control over – and couldn’t possibly be blamed for. As such, the Fairness Audit that takes place will have the full weight of the English working class and lower middle class behind it. However, such is the scale of the crisis, while they will be open to arguments that stress not just the unfairness of the effects of the pandemic, in turn, they’ll be open to arguments about the unfairness of the system that either created it or, perhaps more accurately, didn’t alleviate it.
The mass of the public will demand answers to questions that previously had relatively limited appeal, or which were dwarfed by other questions. Why the postcode lottery in healthcare? Why the decline in social care? Why is executive pay so high and often de-coupled from performance? Why aren’t private landlords held to higher standards? Why are open spaces and parks declining in our towns and cities? The list goes on.
Every generation of Conservative politicians and Conservative activists throws up those that call for a “One Nation” approach. This has rarely been defined well. In the context of Corona, it can finally mean something real to the public – that no one should be left behind, and no one should be able to abuse their position for their own gain. The Conservatives will have to create a new approach that emphasises these objectives. Creating a fair society is going to be the primary challenge for the Party and the country in the next political phase.
It’s easy to think that all this naturally encourages what we might consider traditionally left-leaning answers. Only if you believe the public accepts a classic right-left dichotomy. In truth, of course, they don’t. The public are generally supremely relaxed about methods, they just want political parties to be answering the right questions and displaying the right motives. The challenge is to take ruthless action to create a fair society, the rest is open to debate.