At an Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) conference fringe event over the weekend, James Morris reminded us of the party’s trashed brand and that a needed shift would come from speaking to the values at the forefront of people’s minds during this crisis. He referred to a recent poll suggesting that the pandemic has reminded the public of the equal value of all human life, exposed that the government cares too much about the wealthy and that something has gone badly wrong with the link between effort and reward. Morris also pointed out that polls put the public’s top three priorities as the NHS (which they think Labour shares as a priority), Covid and the economy – but that voters think Labour’s focus on welfare and poverty does not have any bearing on our economic recovery.
A new report, which has been published today and comprises two years’ research by think tanks Compass, TASC, Fundación Alternativas and Arena Idé, goes some way to exploring this disconnect between Labour and the electorate by looking at one group of potential voters and suggesting how progressive parties might better engage them. It concludes a two-year study into the attitudes of high-income earners in the UK, Spain, Sweden and Ireland.
The ‘Inequality and the top 10% in Europe’ study finds that while the top 10% of earners – everyone in the UK earning £55,000 and above – may embody a successful CV, they themselves do not feel successful. Even though they still generally hold meritocratic views, they are beginning to worry about the growing distance with the top 1%. Before the pandemic, they already felt precarious, worried about theirs and their children’s futures They feared increasing inequality. While they did not want inequality to increase further, they showed little understanding of its wider impact. On the one hand, they wanted more investment in public services. On the other, they did not trust the state to deliver them and did not want their taxes raised.
Our study also shows that this politically influential group did not feel their political power, instead feeling alienated and isolated. They fear polarisation and long for a return to what they refer to as the ‘centre ground’. And while they have undoubtedly been insulated from the brunt of the crisis, more of them are likely to have experienced state help than before. It will have been hard to ignore the exposure of our much-eroded safety net. This could provide an opportunity, especially after Covid, to make them more likely to support a social safety net.
What might present a bigger challenge for Labour is showing this income group that individual effort will only take them so far in achieving the security and health they want for themselves and their children. That the future wellbeing and power of our country depends on renewed collective investment and participation. As Sylvia Walby explained very clearly during the equal pay session at Labour’s women’s conference on Saturday, if women are less likely to be able to self-isolate, on less pay and have less access to furlough and sick pay, addressing the gender pay gap directly assists our strategy for managing Covid. Fighting coronavirus is in the interests of us all – even high-income earners. That is the kind of joining the dots that we need more of if the top 10% is to take another look at Labour any time soon.