Category Archives: Framing

The story of the black stuff

img_1388_2The roots of the devastation that is climate change lie in the same roots as the industrial revolution – in the discovery and burning of coal. Leading to steam engines, capitalism, colonialism and the British Empire. Without coal, none of this would have been possible. And we have merely been postponing the consequences.

It has been clear to me for a while that in order to stop rampant global warming, we will need to consume much less. There may be some technological fixes, and it will help if we switch to renewables. But at the end of the day, the earth’s resources are finite, and we need to stop using them up at the current rate.

But this using up of resources is what our economy is based on. We depend on perpetual growth to make the world go round. If people stop buying so much stuff, then we won’t need to make as much stuff, so there won’t be as much work to go round. There will be less money being spent and less profit being made. I can see some easy solutions – shorter working hours, but with a decent minimum wage so everyone can manage, and capping of wages at the top. But all of this is a great departure from our current system of how we measure progress and success.

So far, this is challenging, but not too difficult to conceptualise and imagine how we might get there. What I’m struggling with today is not what the future might look like, but how we interpret our past. The coal that built the world we live in is the cause of its destruction. The rapacious appetites of capitalism and empire have created gross inequalities between people and countries north and south, and stored up in the atmosphere enough carbon to finish us off.

But coal built the world we live in. As I walk to work through Leeds city centre, I admire the beautiful buildings that coal built. And I live in Sheffield, a city built on steel. To regret the industrial revolution feels like betrayal. The wealth created by capitalism transformed our lives – warmth, comfort, health, leisure. There’s no way I want to go back to subsistence farming, or even working in a Lancashire cotton mill. I like the life that I lead, but how do I process it?

Does it even matter? Do we need to develop a new narrative to come to terms with our past in order to move on with our future? Is the reason that we seem to be failing to face up to climate change anything to do with the fact that it means owning up to our responsibility? That the life we lead has caused climate change. Not just our current lifestyles, but 300 years of history on which our country is based.

We are already facing up to the realisation that progress is no longer inevitable, that our children’s lives will not necessarily be better than our parents’. But now I think we have to face up to the idea that what we call progress is not all it seems, certainly not all progress is for the better. There is much about our past that we have cause to regret – slavery is but one example that springs to mind, and having lived in Liverpool I have admired the beautiful buildings there built on the back of slaves. But until now, I have never stared down the whole edifice of capitalism and wondered if it should ever have happened at all.

What story do we need to tell ourselves about who we are, what we have done, and where we are going? We need to acknowledge the good things that capitalism has brought. There is progress that we can celebrate. But we must also acknowledge the cost, not just the fact of it, but the enormity of the price. Was there a better way? Could we have transformed our lives to this extent without the same rape and pillage of the earth? We can never know, and we cannot change what we have done.

But we can learn from our mistakes. When we tell our stories, we must tell them with humility. We enjoy so much about what progress has brought, but this progress has come at great cost, and that cost is not being borne equally. Our history is not a history of learning to tame the earth, but thinking that we have learnt to tame the earth and now finding out that we haven’t. And now these lessons need to inform our future, and a new understanding of what progress looks like.

 

I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s ‘This changes everything’ and this train of thought was set off by chapter 5, which I’m currently half way through!

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Red Tape

It does appear right now that the only thing that is happening in the entire world is that the UK is having a referendum about its EU membership. I’m pretty sure this is not the case (that nothing else is happening, because we are having a referendum!), but it still feels remiss not to contribute to the debate. The topic is extensive and the EU deals with a massive range of issues, so I’ll stick to what I know and talk about woMrMessyrds.

The words I particularly want to talk about are ‘red’ and ‘tape’. How we love to sigh about bureaucracy and regulation and how everything is tied up with red tape. I always end up picturing that moment when you pull off too much sellotape and it ends up sticking to itself, and then getting worse when you try to pull it apart so you end up with a sticky useless ball of tape. And then my imagine runs on a bit until I see someone entirely wrapped in tape looking somewhat like Mr Messy.

gift-box-with-red-bowBut there are better images for red tape. My mum always used to get special sticky tape for wrapping Christmas presents, usually red with pictures of holly, to make our Christmas wrapping that bit more special. Or what about a big red bow on top of an exquisite box of chocolates or other expensive gift. Red tape doesn’t seem so bad now.

So what is all this terrible red tape from Europe that we are so desperate to free ourselves from? Perhaps we would like to rid ourselves of safety at work regulations which mean we can all have the ridiculous luxury of going to work in the morning confident that we will also come home safely and not be dead. Or perhaps we would like to abandon legislation about working hours, rests, breaks and holidays. Because we’d all like to spend more time at the office without getting properly remunerated, and we’re all keen to be treated by health professionals who haven’t slept properly, and we’d love to be driven long distances by or share the road with drivers who haven’t taken a break for hours. Maybe we’d like to reduce the safety standards attached to our food products, because it’s not that important to be confident that what we’re eating and drinking isn’t bad for us. Or perhaps it’s the environmental protections and safety standards that we’d like to dilute, because we don’t really care about having clean rivers or safe air to breath. Or finally, perhaps it’s those pesky human rights that we’re so fed up of, interfering with our right to live our life the way we want to.

First, a word about human rights. The stay/remain choice about the EU has nothing to do with human rights. The European Court of Human Rights is a wider organisation than the EU, and includes countries which are not members of the EU. We have signed up to ECHR independently of our membership of the EU. Whether we vote to stay or remain in the EU, we will still come under the ECHR. We have signed up to the highest standard of protection for our civil liberties and those of our fellow humans around us, and we will remain signed up to this whatever happens on June 23rd. So this is not red tape but a red herring.

But back to the other red tape. Or, as I prefer to see it, the red silk ribbon round the gifts of protection at work, protection of the environment, quality standards, safety standards and peace of mind. Whether we are in Europe of out of Europe, I am sure most of us would prefer to keep this kind of security, high standards for what we consume, and protection of our environment and wellbeing. And if we want to leave Europe but still trade with Europe, then everything we make to sell (both goods and services) will still have to conform to these kinds of standards, or they won’t be allowed on the European market. But instead of playing our part in setting these standards, they will, instead, be imposed on us with no say. Shall I tell you who would really like to see a watering down of the rigorous quality and safety imposed by Europe? The Americans. They’d love to be able to get at our market without having to meet our high standards. That’s what TTIP is all about – the Transatlantic Trade Partnership which the Americans are trying to negotiate with Europe, so they can impose themselves on our markets without having to comply to our standards.

So, personally, I’d rather keep my gift wrapped regulations than decide which part of our society’s health, wellbeing and safety I’m prepared to give away.

Don’t think of an elephant

This is the text of the presentation I give to the Broomhill Labour branch meeting last night. It essentially presents the ideas and analysis of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist who has written extensively about language and frames, and has produced an analysis of the frames used in the US political discourse. You’ll find these ideas in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant. elephant

What are frames?

The first thing we need to do is to understand what frames are. Frames are our deeply held ideas or concepts about the world. Language is the lens through which we see the world. Words divide up and classify the world, a word carries meaning or information so you can decide that this object has the label ‘chair’ but this one is labelled ‘table’. Words carry more complex meanings and information too. It’s as if all our ideas come with baggage, if you like, sometimes shared, sometimes individual. For example, most of you have never met my husband, but if I tell you he’s a vicar, that word or concept already sends lots of ideas (prejudice?) running through your head about what he might be like, based on your experience, on shared cultural understanding of what vicars are like and perhaps even TV shoes like Vicar of Dibley or Rev.

We also use metaphor to understand the world and express concepts. For example, when we say things like “the school holidays will be here soon” we are using a metaphor for time as an object which moves towards us. Time doesn’t really move or ‘march on’ but that’s how we think and talk about it. This is what Lakoff means by frames. The metaphors and cognitive concepts by which we understand the world. We use them all the time, most of the time without even realising. In fact, the world would be a more confusing place if we didn’t, because the baggage that comes with a concept helps us to break down, categorise and understand the world.

How do frames shape our (political) world view?

Lakoff goes onto say that political issues can be framed in such a way as to change our political view. He gives an example of tax. He talks about Republicans presenting their tax cutting policies as “tax relief”. This creates a metaphor for tax, and the idea of “relief” brings its own cognitive frame. If you need relief from something, that thing must be an affliction – pain or disease etc. So when we bring this frame to tax, tax is seen as an affliction or burden because it is something we need relief from. And those who bring relief are heroes, people like doctors or rescuers, who are valued greatly in society. So a government which brings relief from the affliction of tax is a hero, a rescuer. But there’s worse. Any party who wants to stop or limit so-called tax relief is seen as wanting to continue to afflict or burden people. These people are bad people, villains, anti-heroes.

This is where the title of the book comes in. If I say to you “don’t think of an elephant” – you can’t help it, it’s the first thing you do! Lakoff also gives the example of President Nixon saying on TV “I am not a crook”. Never mind the “not”, all anyone heard was the word “crook” coming out of Nixon’s mouth.

So if a party wants to argue against tax cuts, it can’t argue against “tax relief”. Every time they use the phrase “tax relief”, they repeat the frame and reinforce the metaphor (tax is a burden, heroes bring relief, these people are bad because they want to stop the heroes from rescuing us and freeing us from our affliction). So the party needs a new metaphor, a new frame, if it is going to win the argument about tax. Not a burden to be avoided at all costs, but an investment in our future as it has been in the past, or our contribution to a society which we all benefit from. (see p22 and p23 in the book)

Why are conservatives winning the debate?

So far we have really only done linguistic analysis. Lakoff also brings in his analysis of US politics. He believes that in the US, the conservatives are winning the political arguments because they are controlling the frames. He maintains that they are organised and deliberate about the language they use, based on research, investment and think tanks. That the phrase “tax relief” was not just a happy sound bite, but a deliberate planned use of language to frame the debate. He says this because cutting taxes is not really the primary policy aim, but rather, the aim is to cut social programmes. This is unpopular. But if they cut taxes (which is popular) then there won’t be enough money for social programmes and so they have to be cut.

The progressives, on the other hand, Lakoff feels, are not organised, and they have not invested in research about how to present their values in appropriate frames or in the media to promote these frames and values. Progressives, he maintains, are labouring under the assumption (or metaphor) that people are essentially rational actors, This is, after all, what our economics is based on. Progressives believe that if they counter the conservative policies with the facts, with the truth about what impact they will have, then people will have their eyes opened and will vote for progressive politics. You can see how the same thing played out in our election, and we all know what happened there. Part of this trust in rationality is the belief that people vote in their own self-interest. But when progressives tell the truth about conservative policies, poor people, who will be worst affected by them, still vote for them. Lakoff is talking about the US, but we see the same thing here. He goes on to say that people don’t vote in their self-interest, they vote for their identity and values. And while the conservatives are controlling the frames – which resonate across the whole of society – they will vote conservative. Meanwhile progressives are stuck with facts – also based on values but not expressed as values – so people can’t identify with them. The facts don’t fit the frame. The frame is wired into our neurology, based on the cognitive concepts of language. And if the facts don’t fit the frame, the frame doesn’t change, but the facts slide or bounce off.

In fact, for as long as progressive values and policies are not framed and articulated, then the progressives are winning the battle for the conservatives. Every time the argument is conducted in the language of the opposition, their frame is reinforced (think of our own failure to win the argument about benefits – Rachel Reeves springs to mind). If I say don’t think of an elephant, what’s the first thing you do? Every time I argue against tax relief I simply embed the frame deeper in society and it becomes “common sense”.

Family values

One of the key tenets of Lakoff’s analysis is that conservative values resonate across American society. Frames are part of our cognitive make-up. You can’t just invent sound-bites – values are expressed using frames that are already part of our shared culture and language. So conservative values are “American values”, framed in a way that all American’s identify with. But progressive values are “American values” too. Most progressives cannot for the life of them understand how people can possibly agree with conservative policy (is this ringing a bell for the UK too?). If we are going to get anywhere, progressives need to be able to understand why people identify with conservative values, and also need to be able to articulate progressive values in a way which people identify with too. Some people are pretty sold on conservative values, some on progressive, but most are somewhere in the middle, with different values coming into play in different circumstances.

Lakoff wanted to find the frame or metaphor that seemed to be holding all of this together, bringing together some of the seemingly disparate aspects of conservative policy, and yet also accounting for the fact that seemingly opposing progressive values are “American values” too. He realised that the metaphor of a family is frequently used for the American nation. But there are two models of this family in play – the strict father model and the nurturant parent model. Can you guess which is which?? Everyone has both models either actively or passively and may use different models in different parts of their life – family, work, politics, religion etc. But when it comes to politics, conservatives have strict father politics and progressive have nurturant parent politics.

Strict Father family

The strict father model starts with the assumption that the world is a difficult, dangerous place, a place full of competition, and where there is absolute right and wrong. Children do what feels good, not what is right, and must be taught right from wrong. So what is needed is a strict father to protect and support the family and teach children right from wrong. Children must submit to this protection and teaching and what is needed above all to get on in life if discipline. Children must be disciplined to learn what is right and wrong and must learn to develop their own internal discipline. Discipline is key to success in this competitive world, so the disciplined will do well and prosper, and so success becomes linked with being moral (via discipline). The poor must be undisciplined, otherwise they wouldn’t be poor. This is a moral failing, and so they deserve to be poor. And if we keep on giving them hand-outs, they will never learn self-discipline and never be able to stand on their own two feet.

You can see how it plays out, self-reliance, and the idea that if everyone looks to serve their own interests, then everyone will prosper. You can see how it plays out in foreign policy, with the US as the strict father for the rest of the world. It plays out in policies that seek to control women and children, who need to be taught discipline and self-reliance. And so on. But this is all based on moral values of learning right from wrong, learning discipline and equipping people to become independent as they set out in the world. Tough love, if you like.

Nurturant Parent family

The nurturant parent model starts with the assumption that the world can be made a better place, and that the parents’ job is to nurture their children and raise them to be nurturers of others. Nurturant values include empathy, responsibility for yourself and others, and a commitment to do your best for yourself, your family, your community, your country, the world. It involves protecting the family too – from environmental harm, crime and drugs. It means you want your child to grow up happy and fulfilled, so there needs to be freedom to find this fulfilment and there needs to be opportunity and prosperity to be free. Empathy means you want your child to be treated fairly, so fairness is a value, also honesty, trust and community.

So these are the values, but Lakoff maintains that progressive values are not well articulated and not well framed. He talks a lot about the idea that the private depends on the public and the value of freedom. Progressives need to articulate this frame. The private sector is built on public resources, allowing them the freedom to grow and prosper. Workers are wealth creators – no business can make money without workers – and unions protect (nurture!) these wealth creators, but who frames it like this? Pensions are deferred payment for work already carried out, not a supplementary benefit of the job. To withhold or cut pensions is wage theft caused by mismanagement or theft of workers’ money. But no-one says it like this. Global warming is causing catastrophic climate change including extreme cold – we need not be shy of using the word ‘cause’ – we can systematic causation.

What about the UK?

While the theory is the same, the specific frame analysis from Lakoff is focussed on the US. It is not quite the same here. For example the narrative around corporations paying tax is more often to do with them (not) paying their fair contribution. No-one (hardly) in the UK wants to stop free healthcare. But you can see it coming, especially around welfare and the apparent “something for nothing” culture – the strict father model is showing itself.

Discussion

So I thought we should have a discussion.

What do you think are the key metaphors and frames in the Tory narrative? Do they fit the strict father model?

What are the values of the left? Do they fit the nurturant parent model?

What are the key issues and values at Labour’s heart which we need to frame?

The Queen’s Speech

The Government started its new term this week, with the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. So what gems do we have in store for us before the next election? And what do the plans and policies laid out for this term tell us about the Government’s values and priorities?

This is my review of the Queen’s Speech, attempting to read between the lines to see the underlying values. Inevitably, I’m biased, but my main aim is to look at what motivates plans and policies, not to say whether I think these policies are good or bad.

Reasons to celebrate

Big IF

However, I am going to start with some celebrations! To everyone who joined in the IF campaign, take a moment to rejoice. A plan to establish a public register of company beneficial ownership is in the speech! Who says campaigning doesn’t work? I don’t believe this would have been in this year’s plans without the IF campaign. And sticking with the bias for a little longer, there are a few other things in the speech which I have been campaigning for, tweeting about and generally annoying my friends on Facebook with: legislation to improve the fairness of contracts for low paid workers (zero hours contracts, to spell it out), free school meals for infants, a bill to prevent modern day slavery and human trafficking, legislation on the recall of MPs, a commitment to lead efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide and a commitment to champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change. The devil is in the detail, of course, and we’ll have to wait and see how far these commitments take us in actually improving things. There’s a couple of other things I like which I didn’t quite get round to campaigning for – higher penalties for employers who fail to pay the minimum wage, and action to reduce the use of carrier bags.

Values

Looking at the speech as a whole, I wanted to see which of the values I’ve discussed in previous blogs seemed most apparent. What seemed to be motivating the policy plans and decisions? The most obvious values in the speech come under “security”. Economic decisions are described as being made to provide stability and security, tax decisions to increase financial security, energy policy is to enhance security. Security is also obviously a motivation for foreign policy plans, mentioned specifically in relation to EU borders and relations between Russia and Ukraine. Valuing health is part of the security segment, and this is given as the motivation for introducing free school meals for infants. The values of family security and social order are seen in plans to tackle child neglect, serious organised crime, and slavery and trafficking. It is probably no surprise that security is the strongest underlying value. After all, if a government has any purpose at all it is surely to establish the security of its citizens.

Economic values

There are other values which are apparent from the way language is used and assumptions are made. There is a bias towards private solutions rather than public ones. Media and politicians tell us there is a housing crisis. The solutions given for this revolve around promoting private ownership through Help to Buy and Right to Buy, and selling government land to developers, rather than through public ownership, social housing and renting. One aspect of education policy is to promote more academies, often funded with private money, or run by private companies with public money. Economic values and outcomes are given precedence over the wellbeing of society or the environment (though it is possible to argue one leads to the other). So the planning law will be reformed in order to improve economic competitiveness, not to improve quality of life or to protect the environment. Shale gas is needed to provide energy independence and security, without mentioning that continuing to burn fossil fuel will lead to a reduction in our security in the long term as the effects of climate change take hold. Schools are discussed as places to prepare pupils for employment, rather than places of nurture, learning and social development. There will be help with child care costs for working families, leaving the emphasis on being economically active and not valuing the role of being a parent at home.

The environment

Given that climate change is the biggest threat facing the planet at the moment, there is very little in this year’s legislation to do anything about it. The most specific action is to reduce carrier bag use (by charging 5p for each bag I think). This is good, but feels like a drop in the ocean. The Government’s lack of commitment to tackling climate change is revealed in its presentation of other measures. There will be a scheme to enable new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard, but not make this mandatory. The Government will champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change, but even this is not as strong as the plan to lead the way when it comes to preventing sexual violence. I’m proud of the stand taken against rape as a weapon of war, let’s be as determined to lead the way in cutting carbon emissions.

Bias against the poor

The most cynical use of language in the speech concerns spending on benefits. The speech starts by saying the legislative programme will continue to reduce the country’s deficit, although borrowing in April this year was more than in April last year, and national debt continues to rise. So the plans that follow presumably aim to increase income and reduce spending (though some will be decisions about moving spending from one area to another). Promoting growth is given as the reason behind some policies. But cutting spending is only mentioned once. The only area where the Government says it needs to spend less is when it comes to looking after the needs of the poorest members of our society. So the benefit bill will be capped to control public spending. There are no other incidences in the speech where public spending needs to be controlled. There are lots of plans which will cost money which will help the wealthy or better-off. The Government commits to cutting taxes, and increasing the personal tax allowance, which helps everyone who pays tax, including the wealthiest, but does not help the poorest who don’t pay income tax. The freeze on fuel duty won’t help control public spending and benefits those wealthy enough to own a car. Extending ISAs and Premium Bonds only helps those with enough money each month to save. Changes to planning laws and Help to Buy schemes do nothing for those who can never afford to be a home owner. Free school meals for infants will be universal, and help rich and poor. Free child care for workers will be a benefit to all including the low paid.

The one plan to help the poorest which looks like it will cost the Government money is free child-care for disadvantaged two-year olds. The cost of plans to tackle zero-hours contracts and those who don’t pay the minimum wage will presumably fall on the businesses themselves.

Power to the people

The Government fares a bit better when it comes to supporting those vulnerable in other ways than through poverty. The young are supported through plans to develop apprenticeships. There will be legislation to improve the complaints system in the Armed Forces. And, as mentioned before, there are plans to tackle child neglect, slavery and trafficking, and sexual violence in conflicts. It seems appropriate that one of the roles of government is to stand up for those who don’t have power to stand up for themselves.

Another way to help those without power is to give them power, and there are examples of where this has potential to happen. Legislation on the recall of MPs could give this power to the electorate, or it could leave it in the hands of other MPs. Direct elections to National Park authorities also has the potential to give power to the people, and further plans for devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are decentralising power. I’m not sure what the estimates for the public services are, which the Government says will be laid before us, but it looks like a step forward for transparency, which is good for democracy.

Conclusion

I haven’t covered everything here, but I hope I have uncovered the flavour of the speech. Campaigning works, and we can see some legislation coming about because the people have spoken, and there are some signs that the Government recognises the need for and value of increasing accountability and democracy. As I guess I could have predicted, security underlies many of the plans, as I guess that’s what governments are for. Standing up for the weakest is another function of government which we can see here at times too. But the language used in the speech shows the Government is still intent on blaming those on benefits for the deficit, while continuing to spend money on policies which work in the best interests for those who are already much better off. Decisions are made on the basis of economic values. Private is valued above public, and serving financial and economic interests is more important than social values like learning, community wellbeing and protecting the environment. The Government’s commitment to tackling climate change is weak at best or even phony with a green gloss.

I’ll leave you with what I consider to be the most dishonest piece of spin in the whole speech. “A key priority for my ministers will be to continue to build an economy that rewards those who work hard”. Ignoring all the assumptions bound up in the word “continue” (here and elsewhere) this is the biggest piece of nonsense I have ever seen. People like nurses and other health professionals have seen their wages frozen for most of the time this coalition has been in power. Those who work long hours in physically demanding jobs, like cleaners, carers and those in the hospitality industry are lucky if they are getting the minimum wage. Meanwhile, bankers and CEOs are seeing bonuses and salaries rise more than ever before. If I was the Queen, I wouldn’t have read it out.

Tearfund as a movement for Social Change

I started writing my blog as a place to think about how tackling issues like global poverty and climate change needs to start at a more fundamental level, establishing the very values which an organisation, and even society should be based on. Here is Tearfund, asking those very same questions.

TearFund has undertaken a piece of work and concluded that “they should be aiming to change the current unsustainable economic system by altering the social norms and worldviews on which it is based. They realised that a mass movement of people would be needed to achieve social change of this magnitude, and committed to helping build this movement rather than focussing on single issue campaigns and policy led processes.”

Read all about it here.

Inequality: a blight on our nation?

I went to another lecture last night! Kate Pickett talking about “Inequality: the enemy between us” at Liverpool University. I’ve been interested in her work since I did my dissertation, so I thought it would be good to share it. She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of a book called “The Spirit Level”, which explores the relationship between the level of equality in society with various other measures of wellbeing, more of which on the Equality Trust website.

The lecture started by taking us through the main findings of this research. As you might expect, as a country grows richer, so life-expectancy in that country improves. This is a general pattern across all countries until a certain level of income is reached. At the point where countries would be considered rich, any further increase in income no longer leads to its citizens living longer. Comparing rich countries by income and life-expectancy shows that there is no longer a link between the two. So, for example, Portugal and the USA are respectively poorest and richest in this group of countries, but both have relatively low life-expectancy, while Norway (richer), Spain (poorer) have better life-expectancy. Japan has the best figures, while its income is in the middle.

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This doesn’t seem to make sense, as higher income correlates to better life-expectancy within a country. However, when a measure of well-being (including life-expectancy) is plotted against a measure of equality, the results are startling. There is such a strong association between the two that Prof Pickett joked that it looks more like a physics experiment than the kind of outcome normally seen in social science research! We then went on to see many more examples of how inequality is associated with poorer outcomes for other indicators of health and wellbeing, such as the UNICEF measure of child wellbeing, which shocked us in the UK when we came last a couple of years ago. What this shows is that it is not money which leads to better health and longevity, but rank – a person’s status in society.

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So far, we had seen lots of data, and an interesting association. The next part of the lecture considered why inequality might lead to worse health and social wellbeing. Apparently, if you have more friends, you are less likely to catch colds, and if you cut yourself (not badly) you will heal more quickly if you are in a good relationship with your spouse. Who knew?! This is a demonstration of the impact which social affiliation has on our physiology – our healing processes and immune systems. Psychologists have demonstrated that tasks which involve “social-evaluative threat” are the most stressful to complete. That is, maths tasks might be a bit stressful, but they are much more stressful if you know your score will be revealed and compared with everyone else’s. In situations like this, performance worsens if you are subject to “stereotype threat” – ie if you belong to a group which stereotypically is expected to perform worse then you will (on average) perform worse. Stress has an impact on our immunity and on our ageing, and social status even affects our neuro-biology. Perhaps chronic stress is the reason for the differing outcomes – does greater inequality emphasise the differences between social status, causing greater stress and thereby impairing our health, happiness and cognitive function?

But the link between inequality and poor health etc is not just of academic interest. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in this group, doing badly on a whole host of measures. That is a lot of people suffering unnecessarily, only because our society is so unequal. Clearly inequality affects the poorest at the bottom of the pile, but the research in “The Spirit Level” indicates that actually, inequality worsens outcomes right across the spectrum of society.

The impact of inequality has a broader impact too. Pro-social behaviour is lower in more unequal societies. More equal societies have more peace, give more foreign aid, do more recycling and have more biodiversity. These are all the “bigger-than-self” kind of issues which are the concern of Common Cause, research which underpinned my dissertation. In the lecture, we heard more about the effect of “priming”. High status people are more likely to behave unethically, but getting the same people to think about the benefits of equality before carrying out a task leads to more ethical behaviour. The Common Cause report also discusses how priming can lead to more pro-social behaviour. This report encourages groups concerned with “bigger-than-self” issues to consider the values and frames in their own communication, to ensure that values which lead to more pro-social behaviour are continually being primed within society. Equality is itself one of those values.

The Q&A session after the lecture showed that there were many in the audience who were keen to see more equality in our society, including many who were unhappy with the way UK society not only seems very unequal, but stigmatises and excludes the poor. So, is there a solution? Can we make our society more equal? We can all start with our individual situation, challenging prejudice and language which stigmatises, and ensuring our own behaviour is not grasping and concerned only with our own status, but rather with the needs of others too. Prof Pickett suggested that it would be good to see greed and individualism become as unacceptable in future as racism and sexism have become today. She also mentioned a book with some interesting ideas “What shall we tell our daughters” by Melissa Benn. Has anyone read it?

Beyond individuals, what changes would we need to see in society to bring more equality? The need to lift the floor was identified as essential, for those who can and those who cannot work. But there is also a need to constrain at the top. This could be done in two ways (it seems to me that both could be done together). One choice is redistribution. This would involve progressive taxation and proper social security, including a living wage, rather than just a minimum wage which is not enough to live on. She urged us to vote for whoever is promising this, but also reminded us that all of this is vulnerable to being undone by a successive government. The other choice is to make a shift in our society so that equality is embedded within it. This would involve improving economic democracy, which will mainly happen within the workplace. It would mean strong trade unions (small ripple of applause at this!), workers on company boards, especially those that set remuneration, more employee ownership, more mutuals and co-operatives, and anything that leads to more community cohesion.

This all sounds good to me. But before I congratulate myself on egalitarian credentials, I was challenged by one answer she gave. There had been some discussion about the increase in narcissism, and Prof Pickett joked about a self-questionnaire to identify it which asks if you think you’d run the world better than it is currently run. So someone asked her what she would do if she ran the world, though she modified her horizons and only answered for this country. Are you ready? She said she would abolish all private education so that absolutely everyone would go to a state school, and she would introduce inheritance tax at close to 100%. I don’t feel like such a radical socialist now!

Changing the frame of the Benefits Discourse

I wrote this reflection in December 2012, and posted it on Facebook, so apologies if you’ve seen it before. But following a comment on my “Hard-working Taxpayers” post, I thought it was worth repeating. Sadly it still feels just as relevant, more than 6 months on.

I’m shocked by the ruthless way people on low-incomes have been treated by this Government, including in yesterday’s Autumn Statement.  I’m even more shocked that so many ordinary working people think that Government action to cut away welfare support is a good idea.  This view is summed up by the comments of Conservative MP Kris Hopkins: “There are a lot of people out there working very hard who are annoyed that there are other people who are not working and could be.”

At this point, I would like make a few observations.  Firstly, the New Statesman points out that “sixty per cent of the real-terms cut to benefits (they will rise by just 1 per cent for three years) falls on working households.  A working family on £20,000 with children will lose £279 a year from next April.”  Secondly, as pointed out in a letter from church leaders in the north to the government “structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.”  And thirdly, according to the Office for National Statistics, 10.5% of those who are working would like more hours but can’t get them.  That is, 3.05 million people, a rise of nearly 1 million people since 2008.

People on benefits are not a drain on our society.  They are workers, often public sector workers looking after our health or our children, or people who would like to be, but there are not enough jobs.  The welfare system is meant to be social security, security for our society so that those in need will be taken care of.  We all provide for this safety net, and we may all one day be in need of it.  Our stretched economic resources means that, “most of us are only one or two pay packets away from having no money”, a comment repeated here by Carol Midgley from The Times following her interview with food bank organiser Julie-Anne Wanless.

Let’s treat the fellow members of our society with respect, and trust that when the time comes, and you need it, the safety net of the welfare system is still big enough to support you.

Hard-working taxpayers

I’m growing to really dislike the phrase “hard-working taxpayers”, especially when it’s used to  talk about how much money they will apparently save because of some scheme or other.  I came across it again while I was reading an article about the devastating impact of the Bedroom Tax on residents in Liverpool.  I expect I will feel moved to write about that outrage at some stage, but for now, I want to concentrate on the claim from the DWP that “This reform will save hard-working taxpayers almost £1bn”

Let’s be clear. No reform of any sort will “save” any taxpayer any money at all.  Taxpayers will still be paying exactly the same amount of tax, and even if the “reform” saves any money (which, in this case, I sincerely doubt), it will just be spent on something else.  Personally, I’d rather pay for cohesive social communities than Trident.  The current economic deficit means that it will be a long time before any reduction in Government spending has any chance of leading to tax cuts.

But this aside, I still have an issue with the phrase “hard-working taxpayers”.  It conjures up an image of people working their fingers to the bone only to have all their money taken away by the taxman.  I exaggerate, but let’s think of tax differently.  It is our contribution to the common good, our citizens’ commitment to one another.  It is one of the ways we have a share in our common humanity and support each others’ wellbeing.

And please let us remember that not everyone who works hard pays income tax.  There are plenty full-time carers, homemakers and community volunteers who do not receive any remuneration for their work.  And there are many who work hard but at low paid jobs who do not reach the income tax threshold. (This is another bugbear of mine, when politicians raise the tax threshold and then claim to have helped the poorest. No. The poorest weren’t paying tax anyway because they are poorly paid on low hours or zero-hours contracts.)

Actually, even the unpaid and low paid are still busy paying taxes every day – VAT, fuel duty etc.  These taxes have been steadily rising while income tax has been falling, yet these taxes are hidden from sight and have a greater impact on the poor than the rich.  And so to talk about raising tax thresholds to take people out of tax is nonsense, it only applies to income tax.

So let’s get away from this image of the hard-working, hard-pressed, poor old burdened taxpayer.  Instead, why not rejoice if you earn enough to pay income tax and can contribute to those things you have benefitted from, and which have enabled you to earn as you do? And let’s value people and companies who feel the same and want to contribute their fair share. I’ve come across some websites which are trying to quantify which companies are good taxpayers.  One is Tax Ticked and the other is Fair Tax, which was flagged up by 38 degrees last week.  I can’t vouch for their content – see what you think.