Modern politics is besotted by all three main parties chasing the fairness vote. In a time of austerity, they intone, it is important that government is fair.
At the highest level I have no problem with this. What politican or political party would want to make unfairness their aim? It is part of a trite catchphrase. Of course all those of us with some public spirit and some grasp of democratic politics wants things to be as fair as possible, and wish to design and back policies that are “fair”. Any good MP or Minister has drilled into them the need to be fair to all constituents, fair between competing claims on their time and for their support, and fair in assessing need and cause. We have a duty to represent all in our constituencies or the wider nation, whatever their views and backgrounds.
If you try to go further you start to appreciate that there are almost as many ideas of what is fair as there are voters. Going beyond the general, you soon get into some serious politics. MPs and Ministers have to make decisions and judgements. On any given issue we cannot personally back all the viewpoints, though we can ensure they are all taken into account.
This week the Bishops from their Palaces have thundered that it is not fair to limit benefit claimants to £26,000 a year tax free, as they might have to cut their spending. The public has thundered back, by a large majority, that it is not fair to expect all the people in paid employment, many earning less than £26,000 tax free, to pay extra tax to pay benefit recipients more.
Labour, usually instinctively on the side of the benefit claimant, in the Commons seemed to side with the idea that there should be some cap on benefits, whilst in the Lords they did their best to work with the Bishops to undermine the notion.
The European Human Rights Court often claims that if someone has come to the UK uninvited we have to put them up and support them if their home country no longer wants them or might give them a hard time if they returned. Some in the UK agree with this approach, and think that it is fair to uphold the individual’s human rights, even where their views and approach to life is very different from the UK democratic traditions. Others in the UK say that such treatment is unfair on UK taxpayers. Why should we pay, they ask, to support people who were not born and brought up here and who have not paid taxes and made other contributions here and may have gone on to commit a crime here?
People who want the clocks to be advanced by an extra hour by law say it was unfair that a handful of MPs last Friday tabled amendments and spoke about the problems with the Bill so that it did not pass. Those who did not like the change think it entirely fair that MPs in Parliament should be able to use Parliamentary procedures to prevent a new law they do not want.
It is the job of the parties to make their own judgements about what they think is fair, and to persuade enough people to buy into their concept of fairness. In the current debate there are many voices who think fairness means giving more money to those who depend on the state, and taking more money from those who are successful in business. The problem, as always, is that there are not enough very rich to pay all the bills. If the state spends more Mr and Mrs Average have to pay more. Meanwhile Mr Rich may leave the country or simply hire a better accountant.
I find it is often my task in these debates to speak up for fairness for people who try to pay their own bills, who believe they should go to work to support their families, who buy their own homes, and pay for their own travel. They just ask that the state does not take too much away from them to make self help difficult or impossible. There are millions of UK people who do still think they should do a good day’s work for their pay, and think their pay should provide for their needs.
Too many of the people in this fairness debate effectively want to tax these people more. If you tax them too much, more give up and become wholly dependent on the state. More need some state assistance. The welfare reforms are about reducing the numbers who have to depend on the state. The best way to a job is to have a job. The best way to a better job is to have a not so good job and to work up the ladder. The government needs to be whole hearted in its support of such people. It needs to ensure its view of fairness includes a healthy dose of getting behind those who are determined to do the decent thing.