The reaction to the publication of the report “An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK” has been perhaps overly predictable.
It must be remembered that this report was commissioned by the government itself, at the initiative of Harriet Harman, and is designed to provide the empirical basis for making decisions on how to combat inequality. If the Labour Party were uninterested in combating inequality then they wouldn’t have commissioned such a comprehensive, warts and all, report.
We need to set aside some of the hyperbole first. According to the blogger, Richard Seymour, at Lenin’s Tomb: “New Labour has run, in many ways, the most right-wing administration since the Second World War.”. According to Harpy Marx: “This is what happens when a government adheres to a neoliberal and free market ideology, and that means class warfare. ”
The results of the survey are sobering, and should certainly be used to refocus the labour movement’s thinking both in what are objectives are with regard to overcoming inequality, and in how we seek to achieve them. But to describe the record of the Labour government quite so scathingly is a mistake.
The “most right wing government since the second world war” would not have brought in the national minimum wage, introduced civil partnerships, abolished clause 28, brought in Sure Start centres and Working Tax Credits, introduced meaningful devolution for Wales and Scotland, assisted a peace process that has brought Sinn Fein into coalition government in Northern Ireland, provided a statutory route to union recognition, created the Union Learning Fund, and overseen a fundamental shift in liberalising social attitiudes.
An unmitigated neo-liberal government committed to “class war” against the poor would not have brought an extra 2.4 million people into work (comparing 2007 to 1997), lifted 2.4 million over the relative poverty line, taken one million pensioners out of poverty, and moved the UK from having the highest levels of child poverty in Europe in 1997 to close the European average by 2007.
To criticise the record of the government, we need to understand what they tried to achieve, and then to assess what they should have done differently.
Liam Mac Uaid is horrified that relative social mobility has declined. This is indeed disappointing, as there had been a tentative expectation that social mobility was going to show an improvement in this report, but this would have in fact been the first improvement since the early 1970s.
We need to understand the concepts. Whereas improvements in absolute social mobility reflects the shift towards a higher proportion of high status, high income jobs and overall improvement in absolute wages, cultural and educational attainment and other indicators of social capital; relative social mobility addresses the issue of how much your life chances reflect the circumstances of your birth. Social mobility is a distinct phenomenon not necessarily related to either inequality or poverty.
It is certainly true that children from poor backgrounds growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK had far worse prospects for social improvements than those growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. But what is interesting is that the shift in the UK over that period has shifted to become closer to the American norm, which had historically been more socially mobile than the UK, due to less weight being given to inherited social status.
The reason that relative social mobility is a hard nut to crack for government is that the low hanging fruit have already been picked: with the introduction of comprehensive education, raised school leaving age, universal health care and welfare benefits removing some of the worst disadvantages for working class children; as well as social shifts that have lessened the effect of middle class snobbery.
What is more, shifts towards a more knowledge based economy reversed the trend, and increased the weight of class advantage. The proportion of young people going to university increased from 15% to 28% between 1988 and 1992; but while the proportion of young people from the most affluent 20% going to university rose from 20% to 37%, the proportion from the least affluent 20% increased from just 6% to only 7%.
The paradox is that increasing access to higher education has disproportionately benefitted the already better off.
There is also a process of residualisation occurring. This was explained by the Blairite minister, Hilary Armstrong, that decades of presumption by the left had assumed that removing the structural impediments that had crippled the prospects for working class people and lifting people out of poverty, would solve social inequality. This had seen decades of success but the last domino failed to fall: the poorest 2.5% of the population remained deeply entrenched in poverty, and increasingly disconnected from the social mainstream.
The argument here is that as the more superficial causes of social inequality have been addressed, those that remain are more deeply entrenched.
Whether or not we accept this prescription, this hard to reach, hard to help, minority of the population have been the focus of the government’s poverty reduction strategy. The typical pattern of deeply entrenched poverty involves dysfunctional parenting, with a family with patterns of low educational achievement, drifting in and out of the criminal justice system, problems with neighbours and perhaps undiagnosed mental health problems. Persons at risk of a lifetime of poverty will have clear warning signs: low birth weight, educational under-achievement, early sexual activity, truancy, etc.
The Labour government has concentrated in a series of initiatives, of which Sure Start is the highest profile to help the parents of disadvantaged infants, but also including the piloting of the “Nurse Family Partnership” model to give ante-natal and post natal mentoring and support for at risk families. Indeed this approach was at relatively high financial cost, reflecting a genuine conviction that this was the right thing to do.
The more problematic aspects of New Labour’s strategies for reducing inequality were the compulsive aspects of incentivising people back to work; but it would be pernicious to assume that this is only about saving money. It was based upon a sincere but flawed approach to reducing social exclusion.
The headline figure from the Anatomy of Inequality report is that the wealth of the top 10% is 100 times higher than the lowest 10%. This is not particularly surprising given the structure of housing in the UK, where the richest will own valuable fixed property assets that have increased in value while the poorest are renting, and own no appreciating assets.
Paradoxically, an increase in social housing that would provide substantial benefits for working people would not address this inequality, and indeed increasing the proportion of the population in social rented accommodation would further exaggerate the divergence of asset ownership between the richest 10% and the rest of the population. The Thatcherite push towards home owning created many people who were asset rich but disposable income poor. This is an important point to grasp because the issue of housing security does not have monetary value, but is more valuable than cash in the bank in terms of people’s satisfaction with their life.
The more relevant comparator is income equality rather than wealth inequality: where the top 20% of the UK population earn around eight times more than the poorest 20%, which is about twice the differential of the Scandinavian countries, but vastly more egalitarian than, for example, South America.
It is important to understand that for the Blairites, poverty reduction was the target not promoting equality per se , as they did not want to reduce the income of top earners; their target has been to reduce the proportion of the population on less than 60% of median income, by pushing up the wages of the poorest.
So what conclusions should we draw from this.
I have very little sympathy with the arguments being put by Dave Semple at Though Cowards Flinch which seem dismissive of the equalities agenda, based upon a reductive counterposing to “class power”, whatever that is supposed to mean.
There are two problems with Dave Semple’s approach of being dismissive of “Identity”. Firstly, in terms of people’s actual self-perception, and the perception of them by others their consciousness of being a woman, or black or English or Muslim or Christian is often a more fundamental form of self awareness than their “class identity”. This is the difference between a “community of character” and a “community of fate”, to use the terms coined by Otto Bauer. Negotiating our way towards a more equitable society needs to relate to people in terms that they see themselves, as well as relating to their often less self-evident shared class interests.
Secondly, discrimination is a class issue; because the unfairness of discrimination on bases of gender, or sexual orientation, of religion or ethnicity presupposes that there is a more powerful person who can discriminate, and a less powerful victim of discrimination. Winning the argument that discrimination is unfair, and that we collectively oppose discrimination through our unions is a brilliant example of the class based argument that an injury to one is an injury to all.
We need to understand the basis that we oppose inequality. Tony Blair was explicit that for him it was about equality of opportunity, as he said in a speech in 2006 “It is about our sovereign value, fairness. It is about potential never explored, talent torn-off unused, the inability to live a life free from the charity of others. The object is timeless: we want to expand opportunities so that nobody whatever their background or circumstances should be left behind”
This is interesting because the fairness he describes is the removal of external impediments to success, but it does not criticise the idea that there should be inequality between those who “succeed” and those who “fail”.
The individualism inherent in this approach is a reflection of Tony Blair’s acceptance of the core Thatcherite ideal that there is no collective social project that we all share; society is merely the accumulation of individuals, and government is there to mediate between them. Equality of opportunity is a good thing in so far as it removes social discrimination, but if you are only opening the door to different and perhaps more intractable inequalities based upon those merits rewarded in an acquisitive and greedy society, then you have not really addressed inequality at all.
Indeed it is the erosion of communities of solidarity, and lessening of the vision of social democracy as a transformative progressive project in favour of a fairer society that has required New Labour to look to punitive sanctions as the way of addressing anti-social behaviour, rather than community building.
The removal of unfair impediments is not enough to achieve equality, because we are not all blessed with the same advantages in life, and will not all be lucky, and there will be differences in outcome. The aim of a socially just society is to give equality of regard and respect to everyone whatever their social status, and to decouple political and economic power from social status. More egalitarian societies are happier ones, and expanding the social safety net reduces stress and fear of failure.
It is precisely because overcoming inequality is not easy, that it needs to have purposive moral and ethical foundations. A strong basis for a commitment to equality within the Labour tradition is to be found with R H Tawney, as I have discussed before.
Tawney regarded Capitalism as fundamentally immoral, because it is based upon individual gain and self-interest, rather than service to the community. Acquisitiveness becomes a primary goal in its own right, and the strong and powerful use others as mere objects for self advancement, and the weak and poor are encouraged to emulate the selfishness of the strong.
In contrast, Tawney regarded the communities of solidarity of the labour and trade union movement as especially virtuous, and the traditional labour movement priorities for overcoming poverty and unemployment to be moral. As such for Tawney, the industrial and economic struggle of workers against employers took on a moral dimension, because it was a struggle for power within the economy between profit driven selfishness, and collective social solidarity.
With regard to modern politics, the astute observation of RH Tawney is that liberty is related to equality. If freedom is defined as absence of restraint, then liberty promotes inequality, because the more powerful in our society have less constraints upon them, and the majority of the population will always be unfree.
For Tawney, true liberty is the freedom to act positively for the benefit of the community, and being empowered to resist the tyrannical demands of the rich and powerful.
It is absolutely clear that the preoccupations of New Labour with winning elections by spin and media management, is an abuse of their privileged access to communication in order to defend their own power, and thus relies upon a fundamental inequality. What is more, the New Labour strategy of triangulating around the hot issues that sway the undecided voters in marginal constituencies is immoral in the sense that RH Tawney would have understood it, because he believed that Labour politics should be purposive and transformative in order to develop a socially progressive consensus. For New Labour, holding and maintaining power has become the all-absorbing motivation.
But most importantly, if we look at the last few years of rampant consumerism, celebrity culture, bling and self-advancement, we see that New Labour has worshiped at the alter of the acquisitive society. The ethics of Tawney was that society should value collaborative and productive labour for the benefit of the community, not for selfish personal acquisition.
But it is a mistake to see the record of the Labour government over the last 13 years as all bad in this regard: indeed their policies were informed by an intelligent understanding of the structural causes of inequality in our society, and sincere desire to help the most disadvantaged. But their framework has been a timid one, and in the final analysis failed to acknowledge that equality has to rest upon shared sense of community, and that community is alien to the spirit of free market capitalism.