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Fairly United: What Britons think about fairness and equality
Most Britons want equal opportunities but worry about inequality
Today Ipsos and the Fairness Foundation are publishing findings from polling on public attitudes in Britain to fairness and equality, alongside an Ipsos report with results from 32 other countries across the world, as part of the Ipsos Equalities Index 2023.
The Fairness Foundation is also publishing its own commentary on the GB findings.
The Ipsos poll asked six questions:
What factors most affect people’s chances of success?
Is fairness more about equal opportunities or equal outcomes?
How big a problem is inequality compared to other issues?
Have we done enough (or too much) to promote equality for all groups in society?
Which groups in society are treated most unfairly?
Which groups in society are most responsible for reducing inequality?
The polling finds that most Britons want equal opportunities but worry about inequality.
You can read the full GB findings and analysis on our website, including comparisons between Britain and other countries. The key findings and our take on them are below. I’ve summarised the key findings in a twitter thread (please share it if you feel minded to), and our report and commentary is also available as a PDF.
Echoing previous research, the British public splits into three groups on the question of what factors most influence people’s life chances. 38% of Britons are ‘individualists’, who believe that merit and effort are the main drivers of success, while 35% are ‘structuralists’, who believe that systemic factors (such as being born into a wealthy or poor family) are more important. The other 28% are in the middle, or undecided.
Asked what fairness means, more Britons think about fairness in terms of giving everyone the same opportunities (46%) than see it as giving everyone the same quality of life (20%), with one in three (34%) unsure. While there is a sizeable minority who believe that everyone should have an equal quality of life (i.e. equal outcomes), a much larger group prefers everyone to have equal opportunities.
However, 85% of Britons are concerned about inequality, representing a broad consensus. This suggests that many ‘individualists’ think that inequality is preventing people from having equal opportunities to achieve success through merit and effort. 6% of Britons say inequality is ‘the single most important problem’, 36% ‘one of the most important problems’, and 43% think inequality is ‘important, but not the most urgent problem’; only 10% think it is not important, while 5% are unsure.
There is another three-way split when it comes to action on inequality for different groups in society (the groups weren’t specified, but it is likely that many respondents were thinking about racial, gender or LGBT+ inequality as much as or more than socio-economic inequality). 40% of Britons think that we need to go further on promoting equality for all groups, while 31% think we’ve done the right amount or are unsure, and 28% think we have gone too far (the highest proportion of any of the 33 countries surveyed, perhaps linked to the prevalence of ‘culture wars’ narratives in the media).
When thinking about which groups in society are treated most unfairly, Britons are most concerned about the unfair treatment of immigrants (30%) and people with physical disabilities (29%), followed by people from minority ethnic groups (28%) and people with mental health conditions (27%). At the bottom of the table are men (9%, compared to 22% for women) and young adults (8%, compared to 16% for senior citizens). In the middle, 24% are concerned about transgender and/or non-binary people, 22% about people who are neurodivergent, 20% about lesbians, gay men and/or bisexuals, and 12% about people of specific religions.
Asked which groups in society are most responsible for reducing inequality (with the option to select more than one group), 65% think that the government should be mainly responsible for taking action to reduce inequality in Britain, while 33% think that individuals have a primary responsibility. Other groups who are seen as having a responsibility in this area are the media (29%), employers (28%) and parents and teachers (25%). Very few people believe that groups experiencing inequality (11%), religious leaders (10%) or advocacy organisations (8%) bear responsibility for reducing inequality.
Views vary to some extent between groups within society, but these do not follow a neat or predictable pattern. For example, Conservative voters are almost twice as likely as Labour voters to be ‘individualists’, but there is not an exact correlation. There is rarely an obvious correlation between people’s views and their levels of education or household income. Generational differences are complicated; in the main, younger generations are more ‘structuralist’ than older ones, but this does not always hold – millennials are much more concerned about inequality than Gen Z.
Brits are more ‘individualist’ than many other countries on some issues (such as promoting equality for different groups in society), and yet there are fewer ‘individualists’ in Britain than in most of the other countries surveyed, suggesting that there is more of a ‘consensus of concern’ in Britain around socio-economic (and arguably regional) inequalities than around inequalities between groups (gender, race, sexuality and so on).
Given a choice between the two, more Britons think that fairness is about equal opportunity than about equal outcomes. However, this doesn’t mean that most people think that we live in a meritocracy. People are divided about whether hard work or factors outside people’s control are more important in influencing life chances and outcomes. However, a large majority (85% of Britons overall) think inequality is an important problem. This implies that even the ‘meritocrats’ recognise that too much inequality is a barrier to giving everyone equal opportunities to flourish.
It also suggests that people instinctively grasp that equal opportunities aren’t just about removing the most obvious barriers (such as discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or disability), but also require action to tackle the equally significant barriers put up by socio-economic inequalities. As US President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”