A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Denham on equality

I’m not impressed by John Denham's argument to the Fabians, reported in the Guardian as that “that "the egalitarian ideal" that has dominated left liberal thinking since the 1960s is redundant, saying Labour's traditional emphasis solely on the poor leaves the vast bulk of the population alienated and left out.”

The creation of a more equal society is not an abstract ideal, it’s one of the reasons – along with providing a political voice for the trade union movement, why a separate Labour Party exists. Take away that mission and we cease to have any distinctive social democratic purpose or identity and might as well merge with the Lib Dems.

Take away the hope of a fairer society that more justly rewards the least well-off – ironically often the hardest working in the most socially useful jobs – than the market does – and what is the political vehicle for the poor to turn to to get a better life if it is not Labour? We either risk creating an underclass totally alienated from the political process, or driving the poor into the arms of the extreme left or the BNP.

A more equal society is in the interests of everyone, not just the poorest, because all the international evidence shows greater economic equality produces better outcomes on a host of indicators for all citizens – less crime, higher educational attainment, more social cohesion, better health.

Labour’s task is to mobilise an electoral coalition of the poor who need a more equal society, those who would not personally benefit from this but are altruistically inspired by it, and those who are in the middle in society but still need economic security and good quality public services.

Equality is not a 1960s ideal as Denham suggests. It is Labour’s timeless Unique Selling Point. We should put policies that increase equality at the heart of our next manifesto.

22 Comments:

Blogger Sunder Katwala said...

Hi Luke

Have just been at this seminar. What you take John to be arguing (which I agree is the sense of the Guardian report) is not what his argument was. I will post more substantively on this.

I agree with much of your post. We have worked very hard to bring equality back in.

I think his critique of too narrow a case to build broad coalitions is about how we do that. His argument was that a purely needs-based approach which does not reflect public conceptions of procedural fairness, reciprocity and contribution will always be too narrow politically (not linking the middle and the bottom) and not right in principle.

John's opening remarks are on the Fabian website.

4:40 pm, July 01, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truth is Labour tribal loyalists talk the talk, but when your party has spent 12 years in government presiding over and actually perpetrating a more UNEQUAL society, then its no wonder that a minister breaks cover and blows your cover! You do not believe or support equality.

6:17 pm, July 01, 2009

 
Anonymous David Floyd said...

Agree with this post in its entirety and would add that - far from being the starting point of an egalitarian ideal - the 60s were a time when some sections of the liberal left began to lose site of the need for the kind of bread & butter social democracy that Luke defends in this post.

I'm happy to accept that John Denham may have been mis-spun by The Guardian, though.

8:10 pm, July 01, 2009

 
Blogger Hughes Views said...

"Guardian misrepresents minister shock!" - hold that front page...

I know that people such as your anonymous commenter, who prefer the easy option of world-weary cynicism, will never acknowledge it, but Labour's halting of the seemingly inexorable increase in inequality in Britain (and according to many surveys starting to reverse it) was not a simple achievement.

Most of the forces in this most conservative of countries are pulling hard in the opposite direction.

I know from experience of close relatives that pension credits have made a real difference to the lives of those who would otherwise be existing only on basic state pension. A much better use of resources than a general hike in pensions for all (including the 2m pensioners who get more than 25k) would have been. But you'd hardly know about it from the media.

There's a similar story about tax credits but it's also rarely heard. Doesn't really impact the letter writing or blogging classes...

10:20 pm, July 01, 2009

 
Blogger DM Andy said...

Denham touched on something that I've been thinking of since reading Dave Osler on the same topic a couple of weeks about.

The image of the Welfare State as a "safety net" doesn't need to it being popular when most people think that the safety net is something that they won't ever need. That's where the resentment against so-called scroungers comes in.

I think we need to change the Welfare State from a safety net catching people who are falling and make it into a floor that the rest of society is supported by.

The NHS, Child Benefit and State Pensions aren't seen by the majority of people as welfare - why? Because it's for everyone, not just the poor.

11:08 pm, July 01, 2009

 
Blogger Mark Still News said...

Great News the best thing Gordie has done this year!

"The people welcomes today’s announcement by the Government on the renationalisation of the East Coast route but this shouldn't be a short term, crisis measure. It should be a long term solution to the chaos that privatisation has brought to the UK's most lucrative rail franchise.

The peoples workers party and representatives will send a clear message to the Government today that they should strip National Express of their other franchises and use this opportunity to begin the process of renationalising the rail network"

11:21 pm, July 01, 2009

 
Blogger Ravi Gopaul said...

I agree with this post luke, if indeed Denham was not misquoted and actually espoused this sentiment.

How a society treats its poorer citizen's is a barometer to how just and humane that society is.

Luke said

"A more equal society is in the interests of everyone, not just the poorest, because all the international evidence shows greater economic equality produces better outcomes on a host of indicators for all citizens – less crime, higher educational attainment, more social cohesion, better health."

I could not put it better myself; excellent post!

11:00 am, July 02, 2009

 
Blogger Ravi Gopaul said...

I said

"How a society treats its poorer citizen's is a barometer to how just and humane that society is."

That should read "citizens"

11:02 am, July 02, 2009

 
Blogger Newmania said...

A more equal society is in the interests of everyone, not just the poorest, because all the international evidence shows greater economic equality produces better outcomes on a host of indicators for all citizens – less crime, higher educational attainment, more social cohesion, better health.

Thats why the Svoviet Union was such a nice place compared to the United States of America was it ?

12:38 pm, July 02, 2009

 
Blogger Miller 2.0 said...

Luke,

I don't think I've ever agreed with one of your posts more. You're going soft.

2:05 pm, July 02, 2009

 
Blogger Tom P said...

Spot on Luke

2:12 pm, July 02, 2009

 
Blogger opus said...

People are not equal.
I'm good at music, she's good at medicine: she is hard working, I am idle: he is thrify - I waste money and so on and so on.
When we say people should be "more equal" what do we mean. Actually to treat everybody equally would mean treating each person completely differently as we all have completely different needs and abilities. There should definitely be safeguards for those unable (but not those unwilling) to take care of themselves. There should also be means to protect consumers and workers from being ripped off. But beyond that it gets messy.

3:53 pm, July 02, 2009

 
Blogger Carl Gardner said...

It is difficult because equality and fairness aren't always the same thing; a common saying in discrimination law thinking is that non-discrimination requires "like cases to be treated alike; and unlike cases to be treated differently".

I agree with you, Luke, in the importance of equality as an aim and principle for Labour - I see myself very much as a post-Crosland social democrat for whom working for equality is the essence of my politics. By equality, I mean much greater equality of "outcomes" such as income and wealth, as well as equality of opportunity and non-discrimination. I'm in favour of redistribution to the worst off but agree with Harriet Harman's "handbag wars" position that it's not just about fighting poverty. It's about the gap. As you've said, Luke, there's quite a bit of evidence around now that more equal societies and happier, healthier societies.

But I do agree with John Denham that there is another dimension of fairness we need to take account of. For instance, savings. If the benefits system we have designed in order to mitigate economic inequality treats people (in the name of equality) in such a way that prior saving goes entirely unrewarded, many people feel that's unfair. You seem actually to be favoured if you have not saved, even though saving is a good thing. Fairness (and ultimately equality) isn't just about needs - deserts are also a component.

Another example of needs vs. deserts is public housing. It may well be a myth that immigrants, single mums etc. are prioritised in public housing over people who've lived in an area for years, paid taxes, been on lists for ages, blah, blah. I've no doubt it is a myth. But I don't think exposing this myth is ever going to be enough to win the moral highground: people want to know whether we think that should happen, not simply whether it does happen. I'm not sure what should be done about housing but I think many people's concern comes from a feeling that basing the system entirely on needs, not at all on deserts, would just be unfair.

And I think they feel very angry if that concern is dismissed as racism.

11:00 pm, July 02, 2009

 
Blogger Mark Still News said...

Fairness and equality went out the window a long time ago, as New Labour have run a virtual unregulated economy and allowed hyper housing inflation so you now have those that own their homes and others that have bugger all!

11:29 pm, July 02, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Middle class people should worry about equality as they could easily drop into the working classes if they lose their job or go through tough times.
Look at the American middle class, they get rubbish healthcare, and rubbish schools, but get conned that state subsidies just help the poor.
I think Denham is in danger of creating a more right wing society.

11:39 pm, July 02, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are going to end up like the USA!

Its nearly like it now all parliamentarian parties are Neo Liberal anti working classes look at your cloned High streets and Health service being privatised by New Labour through the back door and right wing extremist Mandie trying to privatise the Royal Mail!

1:22 am, July 03, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ridiculous that you can talk all this talk as a Blairite in a party that has actively spent the last part of two decades sucking up the Daily Mail just to get your grubby hands on power. These middle-class university educated crawlers no more care about the poor than Thatcher, yet will chat about equality if it gets the plebs voting for the monkey with the red rosette. Hypocrites.

12:36 pm, July 03, 2009

 
Anonymous Rich said...

But Labour are failing to give the poorest workers the ability to lift themselves out of poverty. Social mobility has stopped and it is worse now than it was under Major.

I agree that a society should protect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. This has been the philosophy in Scotland for about 200 years.

Labour are not helping the poor while there are no opportunities and by over taxing workers to subsidise the poor makes our society weaker and less able to resolve our social and economic problems.

Even those people with reasonably good salaries are now really struggling. Those that have given are paying a terrible price for Labours ambitions. The end result will be a complete collapse of our welfare system as taxes fall while welfare costs rocket.

Ironic that it will be a Labour government that spells the end to the NHS and our welfare system. Pensions being a classic example.....How many people here will be able to work until they are 68 or 70...very few I can tell you.

What this country really needs is opportunities for all those willing to work hard...and just rewards for doing so. For this we need good jobs, training and business opportunities. A wealthy country can afford to help the poor....a poor country can not.

6:26 pm, July 03, 2009

 
Blogger Merseymike said...

I agree with your comments, Luke - but I think that the biggest failure has been in the failure to sort out the taxation system. It is simply not progressive enough, the poor start paying tax far too soon in terms of their earnings which has all sorts of built in disincentives and the 50p top tax rate should have been in place since 1997. I tbhink that there are far too few tax bands

12:56 am, July 04, 2009

 
Anonymous stephen said...

People are not equal.
I'm good at music, she's good at medicine: she is hard working, I am idle: he is thrify - I waste money and so on and so on


No one has ever claimed that people are equal, that they are all the same. But the gross inequalities of our devil take the hindmost capitalist society cannot be explained by the natural inequalities between men. Is the CEO who is paid 200 times the salary of the least paid worker in his company, 200 times as clever, 200 times as hardworking, 200 times more deserving?

When we say people should be "more equal" what do we mean

I think it is quite obvious what it means. It means reducing the degree of the gross inequalities of income and life experience

Actually to treat everybody equally would mean treating each person completely differently as we all have completely different needs and abilities

Nice strawman, which no one is actually proposing.

11:22 pm, July 05, 2009

 
Anonymous Clifford Singer said...

"Labour’s task is to mobilise an electoral coalition of the poor who need a more equal society, those who would not personally benefit from this but are altruistically inspired by it, and those who are in the middle in society but still need economic security and good quality public services."

Spot on, Luke. I think Denham's mistake is to focus only on the latter group, and even then his message is too limited. I've written more about this debate at The Other TaxPayers' Alliance website.

1:49 pm, July 06, 2009

 
Anonymous Rich said...

We are equal but there is something called greed. Unfortunately some of the hardest working are the poorest paid....which is very unfair when the heads of these companies are on million £ salaries.

I'd be more concerned with making sure that the lowest earning earn a living wage and not a min wage. I would also say that it is immoral to over tax those at the bottom of the salary pile.

Equality is a dream that will never happen. And the reason is that those with influence are all too keen to keep the status que.

10:42 pm, July 06, 2009

 

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