Bad news for Jeremy Corbyn and good news for Theresa May – people care more about unfairness than inequality

Julian Harris
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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn trails Theresa May in the polls (Source: Getty)

In one of his many bizarre attempts to mimic Donald Trump, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refers to the economy as a "rigged system".

It is a phrase he has repeated constantly since last week, when the Prime Minister unexpectedly revealed plans for a snap General Election.

"These rules [of the corporate elite] have allowed a cosy cartel to rig the system in favour of a few powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations," he said in a recent campaign speech. "It is a rigged system set up by the wealth extractors, for the wealth extractors."

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Corbyn's chances at the ballot box depend on voters sympathising with this somewhat extreme view of a "rigged system", and with his assessment that Britain suffers from "grotesque" levels of inequality. It is a big gamble, especially in light of recent academic research.

A provocatively-entitled paper – "Why people prefer unequal societies" – sees three professors of psychology at Yale argue that people do not care about reducing inequality in itself. Rather, they dislike unfairness, and while this often manifests itself in an aversion to inequality, on other occasions it leads to a preference for inequality (for example, when factors such as effort, talent, and even luck are brought into the equation).

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The findings provide one of several examples as to why Theresa May enjoys such an enormous lead in the polls over Corbyn. The Tory leader's rhetoric since last summer has focused relentlessly on "fairness" and meritocracy.

"Our goal is a fairer society where success is based on merit," she said this month. "We must and will ensure that hard work is decently rewarded."

These may sound like meaningless platitudes, but there is a reason why centrist politicians emphasise fairness so strongly in their soundbites. What is fair, and what is not, remains at the very core of most voters' convictions.

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In her speeches and interviews, May issues a calm but determined message about improving fairness and enabling people to improve their lot through their own hard work. Corbyn, on the other hand, promises to tear up the system and attempt an unprecedented wealth-grab. Britons have always preferred the former narrative, and there’s little to suggest this time will be any different.

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