From the TUC

More thoughts on equality

07 Jul 2009, by in Labour market, Politics, Society & Welfare

John Denham’s speech and the Fabian/Rowntree research has sparked an interesting debate. Whether this will be any compensation for John, given that he will probably pay a political price for the misrepresentation of his views by the Guardian, is a harder question to answer.

Most debates about equality among politicians end up being a bit disappointing. People in politics are so often unclear about what they mean – sometimes because they don’t really know themselves , sometimes deliberately when people talk up their commitment to meritocracy to cover up their lack of interest in narrowing inequality of outcomes and sometimes because a bit of vagueness keeps you out of trouble.

The biggest confusion is between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity.  Don Paskini reminds us again that meritocracy was originally seen as a bad thing by Michael Young when he coined the term.  Over at Next Left,  Stuart White provides a pretty definitive map of the different ways that philososphers and political scientists have discussed equality, and locates John Denham’s speech in the “luck egalitarian” tradition – a term new to me. This is very much an area where some more knowledge of political philosophy would be useful to politicians and those of us who seek to influence them.

While I would go further than this, Denham’s position still seems to me pretty progressive for a member of this government, and has the added bonus of being part of a discussion of how to win support for a less unequal society, rather than a simple statement of belief. (It is perhaps unfair of Cliff Singer of the excellent Other Taxpayers’ Alliance to criticise John for not talking up The Spirit Level at the launch of another book, while Sunder does a good job of defending it.)

It is unclear to me whether the new Labour project has ever had any interest in reducing inequality of outcomes. There was a big debate inside Labour in opposition driven by focus group research that suggested equality was not popular, but that fairness was. People like Roy Hattersley and my then boss, Bryan Gould, were unhappy with this, but that was the eventual direction that new Labour strongly took after John Smith’s death.

That is not to say that Labour has not had policies to reduce poverty because it clearly has. Tax credits and the minimum wage have clearly had an impact. The pledge to eliminate child poverty may be less likely than ever to be met in the midst of recession, but progress has been made and it remains bold and progressive as an objective. The working poor have had a boost to their living standards, though the non-pensioner non-working poor have not done so well.

But at the same time the Party has been “intensely relaxed” about the filthy rich – even if you include the oft omitted caveat “as long as they pay their taxes”. A cynic might even see this as an attempt to appeal to both rich and poor at the same time, as part of the Party’s reluctance to ever have enemies (other than benefit scroungers).

It is easy to dismiss things as being done for “mere electoral expediency” in retrospect, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s when these debates first raged, Labour had gone through a period of favouring electoral inexpediency. But the net result of concentrating on the relief of poverty has been the neglect of middle income Britain who as we show in Life in the Middle might have done better if there had been more emphasis on equality.

income distribution

As the graph shows there is not a huge gap between the poor and the middle – and the key task for progressive politics must be to make then allies rather than for those in the middle to see the poor as their enemies.

For this is a gap in even some of the more rigorous philosophical dicussion of equality. It it not just the gap between rich and poor that matters, but the distribution in between.

One Response to More thoughts on equality

  1. Charlie Marks
    Jul 8th 2009, 1:22 am

    The reason why people might identify “fairness” more positively than “equality” is pretty obvious. The people who gain from our unfair society have spent a lot of time and effort knocking equality as a concept, but can’t really attack “fairness” – it’s not easy to propose that some unfairness might be beneficial, is it? Whereas it’s been easier to associate equality with uniformity.

    The ability that people and low- and middle-incomes had in the past to improve their lot through effective union organisation has been denied them by New Labour, and it’s no accident. Ostensibly pro-poor measures such as tax credits benefit employers for whom handouts are better than union organisation, and can easily be reversed by a future Tory government without much in the way of a struggle.

    My problem with Denham is that I doubt very much the Guardian could have got the impression they did without some help – in other words, someone at the Denham end was very keen to say “the minister will be talking about equality, but don’t worry he’s bashing lefties, not calling for a more equal society.” Far from paying a political price, this has probably helped Denham – the capitalist press seem delighted by his comments, however misrepresented.

    By the way, am I alone in thinking that for the past twelve years the Labour party has been going through a period of “electoral inexpediency”? How else do you lose millions of votes and halve the membership? Never before has Labour in office been so out of touch with its members and voters – perhaps because we haven’t really had a Labour government…