Monday, 28 January 2013

A note on 'Little Guy Conservatism'

Today, Conservative Home launched a week long series of articles on what Tim Montgomerie calls 'Little Guy Conservatism'.  This fits in with a now quite well-established debate in the Conservative Party about the need to reach out to working-class voters.   In its various guises, it has been labelled 'blue-collar conservatism', 'white van conservatism' and 'conservatism for the underdog'.  The hero of 'little guy conservatism' is, of course, the striver.

The basic idea behind Montgomerie's project is that the Tories, under Cameron, got modernisation wrong.  The Cameroons believed that voters disliked the Conservatives on social issues: immigration, crime, the environment.  The reality is, however, that the Tories failed on economic issues and public services.  Many people didn't trust the Conservatives on economic and job security; on providing good, well-funded and fair public services; and on making sure the rich paid their fair share.  In short, for the age-old political debate on how resources should be distributed, many people didn't think the Tories were on their side.

I actually agree quite strongly with Montgomerie's thesis.  The reason the Conservatives didn't win in 2015 is because people didn't trust them with their livelihoods.  There are now signs however that the top of the Tory Party are listening to these arguments.  This is evident in the decision to freeze fuel duty and the enthusiasm for increasing the tax-free personal allowance.

However, I think there are two forces working against this project; which, in the end, should make Ed Miliband sleep a little easier at night.  The first is that there are still many in the Conservatives who advocate slashing and burning public services, the welfare state, employment rights, minimum wages and so on.  This influence is also evident in the Tory high command.  Every time Cameron makes a speech, we're told about about 'The Global Race'.  This strand of thought works against the idea of blue-collar conservatives: that the Tories need to convince people their living standards and jobs are safe with them.

The second problem is how the project is framed by its key proponents.  It baffles me how Montgomerie et al can consider referring to 'little guys', 'white vans' or 'underdogs' makes them appear in-touch with the needs of ordinary, working- and middle-class voters.  It is a remarkably crude, tabloid caricature of working people, which treats them as a different species to the political class rather than the people that politicians should serve.  The problem is summed up in the image below, produced by Conservative Home, in which blue-collar conservatism is represented by dog food.  Until the brains behind this project realise that comparing your target electorate to dogs is unbelievably patronising and offensive, then I'm not sure Labour has too much to worry about.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The paradox of public opinion and welfare

I've just read this interesting piece in the journal Soundings about contributory welfare.  It's written by Graeme Cooke of the IPPR, with a response by Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney.  It comes at a time when the contributory principle - 'something for something' welfare - is enjoying a resurgence within certain centre-left circles.

This resurgence is largely because the centre-left is looking for a way to make welfare popular again.  And contribution is back in favour because of something I think we can call the 'paradox of public opinion'.

The paradox starts with the perception that many people don't like aspects of the welfare system.  In particular, they don't really like out-of-work benefits and - increasingly - certain universal payments.  Over several decades, and increasingly so at the moment, politicians (especially the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats) have interpreted this as a public demand for greater means-testing.  To focus the system on those who need support the most.  Subsequently, as 'demand' has risen for means-testing, the use of it has gone up in the benefits system.

However, for those on the centre-left, the greater use of means-testing reveals a difficult paradox in public opinion.  This is that although the way to placate public distaste with the welfare state appears to be to respond to it by means-testing, such a response ends up creating a vicious circle.  One where the feeding of public 'hunger' for welfare cuts only creates a larger appetite.  

For many on the left, reasserting the contributory principle offers a hope of reasserting support for the welfare state.  This is because means-testing concentrates social security on an ever decreasing group of people, meaning that the vital ingredients of public support for welfare are lost: self-interest and solidarity.  Contribution could - the argument goes - revitalise both ingredients: by widening the pool of people who benefit from the welfare state and by making welfare more reciprocal.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

When a man is tired of life, he might just be tired of London: regional wellbeing in the UK

As many people know, the ONS - supported by the Prime Minister - has been expanding its efforts to measure the population's wellbeing.  This comes at a time when a lot of academic and think-tank work has argued that governments should take far more notice of 'happiness' indicators to judge the success of policies.

In practice, these expanded efforts have involved including four new questions into the Annual Population Survey.  These new questions measure four dimensions of wellbeing:

  • Satisfaction with life
  • Happiness
  • Life worth
  • Anxiety

Part of my PhD is exploring the relationship between wellbeing and labour market status, especially differences between welfare-to-work participants and other unemployed people.  But as part of my work I must also look at what other factors are important in determining a person's wellbeing.  These include, for example, gender, marital status, age and religious belief.

I've also been looking at the link between where you live and wellbeing.  And in the course of this research an interesting trend has emerged.  This is that London - for each of the four indicators of wellbeing outlined above - always comes last.  

Take a look at the tables below, which rank each the 11 regions in order - from those with the highest level for a particular indicator of wellbeing to those with the lowest (except 'anxiety', which is runs from least to most anxious).  London is bottom in each league table and - if you look in at the hard numbers - it is often way behind.

I don't know any academic research that explores why this might be.  But there are certain things we know are linked to wellbeing that London might have a poor record in: inequality, community, the environment.  We also know the family is often important for wellbeing and, considering many people move to London away from their families to pursue work, this could also be a factor.  Finally, we mustn't rule out the idea of 'the rat race' that, if these figures are anything to go by, may have something to it.

More research is needed on the link between area and wellbeing, but the ONS evidence looks robust.  The relationships in the table above hold even when a range of other factors are controlled for: such as employment status, age, gender, ethnicity and many more.

For years, health and social scientists have pored over the so-called 'Glasgow Effect'; that is, the unusually bad physical health outcomes associated with Glasgow.  Now, it might time to start investigating a possible 'London Effect' for mental wellbeing.  And, if you want to know where to live, it should be obvious from the table above: South West is the best (and Scotland isn't too bad either).

Monday, 7 January 2013

How Labour can win the 'welfare war'

I've just read this paper - passed on to me by Duncan O'Leary from Demos (who is doing some interesting work on attitudes to welfare) - about public opinion on the welfare state in the US since the mid-1990s Clinton reforms.

The paper is set up in a remarkably similar way to my own recent publication on attitudes.  Specifically, the authors argue that the Democrats - very much like New Labour did here - adopted some of the language of the Right in terms of welfare to actually try and refashion public attitudes to be more favourable to left-wing arguments.  This is something that seems to have been forgotten in recent years.  The rationale at the time was that in order to make real progress on poverty and inequality, the Left needed to acquire popular support for its favoured policies.  And to do this, it had to recognise public concerns with the welfare state.

The consequences  - as we now know in the UK - have not worked out as the Left planned; with much tougher attitudes towards certain recipients of the welfare state (especially those seen as 'undeserving') and a generally poisonous press climate.  This has made it profoundly tricky - if not electorally impossible - for Labour to defend social security.  Even the party's announcement last week of a Job Guarantee programme for all long-term unemployed people - something you'd think might appeal to all shades of Labour - drew the ire of the party's left for its accompanying emphasis on toughness, sanctions and personal responsibility.

The results from the US are broadly comparable, with welfare reform having no success in producing more favourable attitudes towards social security policies.  Whilst American attitudes have not undergone as deep a transformation as British ones, it is worth remembering that US opinion was already at a much lower base of support than in the UK.

So what are the messages from these very similar stories?  Well, firstly, the experiences in both the UK and the US suggest the opposite from what many commentators seem to accept as a truism: that politicians respond to public opinion.  Rather, the shift in attitudes in both countries strongly implies that what political parties say can have a significant effect on what the public think.  And once Labour realise this, they will be liberated from the destructive game they so often seem to play with the Conservatives on welfare.

The second message is argued by the authors of the US paper.  This is that for policy areas like social security - in which there is little 'proximity' to most people's lives - the 'visibility' of political messages becomes increasingly important.  This means that people pay little attention to policy detail and pay a lot of attention to policy message.  We can see this phenomenon at play in the debate about the benefits cap.  It won't affect the majority of people: so the Coalition frame it as a symbolic policy, about what is fair and what is not.  Labour, alternatively, complain about the sloppy detail of how the policy has been made and voice concerns regarding its consequences.

To win what some are already calling a 'welfare war', Ed Miliband and Labour need to learn two lessons from how public attitudes have shifted in the past decade.  First, that it is in Labour's power to shift the terms of debate.  And second, that in order to do this, it will have to win a war of hearts, not just of heads.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

If policy should promote happiness, we need to know what happiness is

This morning I read Alastair Campbell's short book The Happy Depressive.  In sum, it is mostly a discussion of what it means to be happy, set against the backdrop of Campbell's own - often troubled - life.  Alastair Campbell labels his interpretation of happiness as a 'dark theory'.  Happiness is, according to Campbell, something we can only know at the very end of our lives; when we look back at how we have lived and whether or not we feel we have been fulfilled.

The Easterlin Paradox: happiness is stagnant despite rising incomes

Happiness then is not a feeling, as such.  Rather, it is an evaluative process that we engage in throughout our lives.  Do we fulfil and challenge ourselves?  Do we do our best to cultivate our most important relationships?  Do we make a difference to other people's lives?  To my mind, Campbell makes an extremely important point: it is possible to feel anxious, grumpy and burdened but at the same time be happy.

This confusion - between feeling happy and being happy - is what I think is behind many social problems.  People too often seek out immediate pleasures that make them feel momentarily good: gambling; drinking; taking drugs; eating too much; buying expensive stuff we don't need.  There is a sense across society that to be happy is to seek out the feeling of pleasure; a dangerous and depressing idea.

Contemplating happiness is now at the centre of many policy discussions, as academics, politicians and other assorted wonks try to put the measurement of happiness at the centre (or least margins) of policy formation.  Yet as Campbell's discussion implies, in order to promote happiness and measure happiness, we need to consider what happiness actually is.

This means that there are two very different kinds of question we can ask people.

How happy is your life at the moment?  


How happy are you with your life?

I suspect when asked these two, very different questions, different types of people might give very different answers.