The pictures of Wayne and Coleen enjoying the lap of luxury in a Dubai pool were hard to take. As half a million public sector workers face the chop, how dare this spoiled brat be rewarded for holding his club to ransom! screamed the Mirror. Rooney’s behaviour was deemed out of order by the tabloids.
In politics, however, the concept of fairness is not nearly so clear cut and it’s a fierce battleground between the parties. One of the most interesting debates that will frame this parliament is the Conservatives’ attempt to wrestle fairness from Labour’s grasp.
In the first phase, George Osborne has been successful in winning support for his definition of tax and spend fairness. By reducing the nation’s finances to a metaphor about household belt-tightening, he has been able to drive home popular messages about the need to make cuts.
This has allowed him to focus the discourse on the pragmatic rather than ideological imperative to reduce the size of the state. Now, the need for smaller, more efficient government is no longer a debate in itself, it’s the consensus. This in turn pushes Ed Milliband into inhospitable territory, making his job of finding a defining message much harder.
Iain Duncan’s Smith’s proposals to tear up the benefits system mark phase two in the landgrab for fairness. His policies are couched in the language of “tough, fair and right” while his most potent argument is that it can no longer be acceptable for people on benefits to receive more than what working people earn, signalling a clean break with the previous administration. So where New Labour equated fairness with more generous state handouts, IDS is flipping the notion on its head in his attempt to sell the explosive idea of the radical withdrawal of the state.
He has met stiff resistance but it’s a sign of the Conservatives’ bullish mood and Labour’s ‘vision thing’ deficit that he can even attempt such reform. Likewise, it shows that Cameron’s detoxification of the Tory brand – itself aided by the economic necessities of the recession – has been successful.The Blair-Campbell axis was masterful at creating a black and white division between Labour fairness (“what’s right for Britain”) and Tory nastiness (“same old Tories”) but things are much greyer and far more interesting now.