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Identity and the report of the National Equality Panel

"We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders. We enter this campaign at this general election, not merely to get rid of the Tory majority. We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party."

One of the most stirring moments of my young life was studying GCSE history and reading about Nye Bevan and the phrase, “From the cradle to the grave”, describing the post-war settlement of free education, free healthcare, social housing, unemployment benefits and a pension for people once they were too old to work. The universalism of not leaving one person out still moves me in ways I can’t describe.

The National Equality Panel, set up by Harriet Harman, reported today and its summary (.pdf) and full report (.pdf) each make for interesting reading as regards the declining equality within the UK. While it would not be fair to say that the rich have got richer and the poor, poorer, the truth is that the rich are getting richer much faster and institutionalising their wealth so that it lays the basis for future inequality.

Several conclusions are outlined by the N.E.P., and they point out that far from a social settlement in which at every level exist redistributive mechanisms to re-balance society and make it fairer, inequality now reigns and increases at every stage, from the cradle to the grave. A sad indictment of what successive governments have done, and what potential future Labour governments don’t really propose to correct.

HarpyMarx and Lenin of the Tomb have each put their spoke in already, I thought I would merely add what I thought to be one of the most incisive sections of the report’s summary.

Differences in outcomes within each social group, however the population is classified, are usually only a little narrower than those across the population as a whole, and are much greater than those between groups. The inequality growth of the last forty years is mostly attributable to growing gaps within groups rather than between them. By implication, achieving a more equal society than we have now would require not only narrowing gaps between the average outcomes for particular groups, as defined for instance in equalities legislation. It would also require gaps to be narrowed between the more and less advantaged within each social group.

None the less, there remain deep-seated and systematic differences in economic outcomes between social groups across all of the dimensions we have examined – including between men and women, between different ethnic groups, between social class groups, and between those living in disadvantaged and other areas. Some of the widest gaps in outcomes between groups narrowed in the last decade, particularly between women and men and, although the data are not completely robust, the same seems true of those between the most disadvantaged ethnic groups and others. But, despite the elimination and even reversal of the qualification differences that often explain relative levels of employment and pay, significant unexplained differences in labour market outcomes remain. Such differences suggest that people are not receiving equal treatment in some way, and that the opportunities open to some are constrained in a way that they are not for others.

Fourth, economic advantage reinforces itself across the life cycle. While there is nothing deterministic in what we have described, the evidence we have looked at shows the long arm of people’s origins in shaping their life chances, stretching through life stages, literally from cradle to grave.

This is a disturbing report. The BBC article on the subject seems to be playing up the continuing ‘deep seated and systemic’ gender pay gap, rather than the increase in inequality as a whole, despite the declining gap between men and women. The acknowledgment that this is decreasing, along with, generally and at first glance, the gap between ethnicities, is an important point.

It shows that the crusading of Harriet Harman et al is having a good effect in terms of improving the life chances of the various minorities in the UK. This is to be supported, for sure. But what it also demonstrates is that fighting for this on its own, without meaningful attempts to redistribute wealth to workers, is not sufficient to battle against rising inequality as a whole. There are also questions of political tactics.

Fighting against minorities being forced to bear disproportionately worse ‘outcomes’, without the overwhelming sense that we are targeting all forms of deprivation, regardless of identity, seems to me an agenda likely to attract the most aspirant (within the confines of the current system, thus, I don’t think it would be going too far to say, already well-to-do) elements of each minority, rather than being universally appealing. There’s also the danger of stoking up resentment from the ‘majority’, with the feeling that they are being passed over.

It’s important to explicitly combat racism and social exclusion by defending the particular targeted identity, but when it comes to building a wider social movement addressing broader political questions, I think it makes for a stronger coalition to stress the things that unite all workers. The relationship of all workers to the State, and the social settlement owed, and to their employers, form this uniting core.

To fight for these things, it is not necessary to declare the concept of alternative identities as antithetical to working class universalism, but the primacy of that universalism when deciding how to proceed is important. If we take the case of people who stress their Britishness first as an analogy, the danger of not creating an explicitly proletarian narrative is revealed. The analytical category assumed by an identity such as Britishness is the primacy of the nation, with no inherent recognition of the contradictions that break down the analytical category.

Concepts like ‘national good’ and ‘national sacrifice’ adjust quite readily to corporatism or capitalist retrenchment, whereas the concept of a proletarian identity carries with it an inherent critique of capitalism, undermining the nominal equality of citizens assumed by ideas like ‘Britishness’ and giving the lie to those who speak in the name of the nation, by demonstrating the fundamental irreconcilable that runs through it; the opposition between employer and employed, between ruler and ruled, each of which is contained by any given nation.

Basically, as the decrease in relative inequality shows, capitalism can be reconciled to equality between male and female, between Asian and Caucasian and so on. It cannot be reconciled to socialism. This is another lens through which to view the points I have been trying to stress in my two articles entitled Identity and Revolution.

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