Perception and reality: Governing by hypocrisy

When footballer Samir Nasri broke his hand last week, some cynics questioned whether it was the burden of carrying home his hefty pay packet that caused the injury.

This, of course, is not a football blog. The sentiment expressed here, is, however, significant.

The 50p tax rate, introduced under the Labour government, applies to all earnings above £125,000. It is a rate that has apparently caused football clubs, such as Nasri’s Manchester City, to inflate further the wages of their staff in order to compensate. It is this very sort of false economy that has driven leading economists to call for the Government to scrap the rate. Such a high tax, it is said, may serve the public desire for the richest to ‘pay their fair share’, evident in the disdain with which footballers’ wages are met, but it does not deliver on its economic promise. It is thought that the Conservative faction within the Government will answer this call, though their Lib Dem partners may have something to say about that. This would be a grave error.

There are times, even within the context of our economic situation, where the morals of a policy matter more than its practical use. This is one. The public would not perceive a tax cut for the rich at a time such as this as morally justifiable, even if it is economically so.

The Government, then, seems set to ignore public perception and act according to economic reality, hoping to convince the public that in the context of the financial crisis practical, rather than moral concerns, must be followed.

Yet their actions on another issue reveal this to be hypocritical.

The 50p tax rate is a source of heated debate, if not of worthwhile revenue.

On Tuesday, Ed Miliband enjoyed a frosty reception at the TUC conference. In his speech he reaffirmed the opinion that public sector strikes over pensions back in June were wrong. He did so because he, like all opposition leaders, is a slave to public perception. Long before he won the leadership election, the narrative on his leadership was written as ‘Red Ed’, in thrall to the Unions. This was only exacerbated by the way in which Mr Miliband won; a route to victory described this week as failing to meet the criteria for a free and fair election.

Thus, Miliband has ever since been forced to juggle the responsibility of both appearing ‘electably’ centrist, and providing a sufficient source of opposition to the government. It would be fair to say that he has dropped both balls on more than one occasion.

But if Miliband is largely forced to operate within the strict confines of what public perception allows, then the Government has in this case sought to exploit public perception as a justification for its own policy.

Miliband’s speech has returned public sector pensions to the heart of political debate. The coalition continues to paint the agreement drawn up between labour and the unions in 2006 as unsustainable and unaffordable, but as a group of MPs concluded in June, ‘officials appeared to define affordability on the basis of public perception’ rather than any hard evidence of a need to adapt to the economic reality.

When it suits them, the Government’s mantra seems to be that public perception of moral unfairness justifies their actions without any factual support. When it is the country’s wealthiest, and not public sector workers, that are in the frame, their tune rapidly changes to one in which hard economic facts must be prioritised above the moral trend a policy sets.

‘The real distinction’, said Henry Kissinger, ‘is between those who adapt their purposes to reality and those who seek to mould reality in the light of their purposes.’ When Kissinger would struggle to identify your moral intentions, a rethink is needed.

One of the questions in this summer’s English A-level asked students to explain the difference between perception and reality in one of a number of literary texts. It is a question this Government would struggle to answer.


Posted on September 14, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Conservative Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrat Party, Party Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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