Do Conservatives still recognise the importance of inequality?
At the start of the month, the Cabinet Office published its “state of the nation report” on Poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency in the United Kingdom. It recognised that poverty is a dynamic and multi-dimensional problem and argued that, despite progress in some areas, “poverty and inequality remain a deeply entrenched problem that blights many families and communities across the UK.”
Back in 2006, Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, published a “State of the nation report”, on Economic Dependency. I do urge you to follow the links to these two reports – it isn’t only their titles that are similar, they use the same typeface and design! I do wish that the government document had also copied the radicalism of the CSJ report.
Don’t let my praise for that report let you think that it gave up on Conservative principles in any way – the theme that runs through it is a trenchant attack on the last government’s strategy and outcomes. But what is notable about it is the way it accepts (insists) that inequality and relative poverty are social problems Conservatives should care about.
One of the headings reads “Poverty is relative and social exclusion matters” and it quotes Oliver Letwin saying “of course inequality matters. Of course, it should be an aim to narrow the gap between rich and poor. It is more than a matter of safety nets… We do distribute money and we should redistribute money.” The report explicitly breaks with John Moore’s 1989 claim that there was no poverty in Britain.
If only the Cabinet Office document was as forceful. Although the introduction includes inequality among the ‘problems’ it is concerned with and there are a couple of pages detailing the facts and figures on inequality, there is no explicit commitment to reducing it, no promise of redistribution.
For me, this is the key test of whether the new government is progressive or not – and it will be particularly difficult for them to pass when they are in the middle of making huge cuts. In fact, large scale cuts are so regressive that I don’t think it’s going to be possible for them to live up to the promise of that 2006 report but I still hope I may be proved wrong.