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Posts Tagged ‘Equality Bill’

New Labour and the ‘Good Society’

January 23, 2010 18 comments

Harriet Harman in a speech to Compass ironically titled “the Good Society” dwelt on the subject of how equality needs to be examined and addressed through the State. As she is the Minister for Equality, this won’t come as a galloping shock to most people, but what was particularly surprising was how little meat she managed to get away with attaching to the New Labour rhetoric and its usual attempt to be both self-congratulatory and critical of the Conservatives.

“Equality,” declared Harman, “must, of course, mean the absence of discrimination on grounds of race, gender, faith, sexual orientation, disability and age”. Yet, she continued, “we also know that overarching and interwoven with these strands is the persistent inequality of social class.” All the usual prostituted buzzwords follow; aspiration, opportunity, values, commitment, fairness and so on.

There’s nothing radical about this idea, and certainly nothing radical about the basis on which Harman’s National Equality Panel was set up “to document the relationship between inequalities in people’s economic outcomes – such as earnings, income and wealth – and their characteristics and circumstances such as gender, age, ethnicity or class.”

Quite the opposite of radical, Harman seems to conflate the issue of equality with the issue of identity. This looks at the question the wrong way around, as straightforward income inequality is ultimately caused by low pay. Low pay, in its turn, is not caused by the poor education that might result from growing up in a poor family. It exists independently, and even a nation of rocket scientists will still pay Tesco GAs poorly.

Why certain individuals are ‘unequal’ can be mapped using gender, age, race, social class and so on, but this does not challenge the fact the inequality is a prerequisite of capitalism. It does not change that at all points in time, some people must occupy the worst-paid rung of the economy, some people the best, whatever their respective backgrounds and circumstances. Even if the races were equal in their share of poverty,this still doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to be earning the minimum wage.

For Harman, it’s mostly a matter of equal opportunities, of state intervention at specific points to improve equal economic outcomes. This matters less to me when at some level it’s dealing with equally bad economic outcomes.

This type of policy may end up with people on all levels of income making up a roughly representative sample of the workforce, rather than lesser incomes having higher proportions of immigrants, non-white races, older people and disabled people than the general workforce, but I doubt it.

Such an acceleration of minorities will provoke an ideological backlash that will elect a hostile Tory government. For Harman’s conception of inequality doesn’t acknowledge the idea of class power, the concept that the people at the top have a vested interest in continuing to accumulate the wealth and structural power that helps to sustain and extend the imbalance that exists. These interests have never been reticent at exploiting prejudices and the view that some parts of the whole, e.g. ethnic minorities, are doing better at the expense of other parts.

Harman’s ideas simply press for helping certain parts of the lower rungs. I support this, as race, gender etc shouldn’t be determinants of one’s future position in society – but this is not all that needs doing, if we’re to combat the class agenda laid out above.

Unless this agenda is supplemented with a full-fledged attempt to redress actual inequality also, rather than just relative inequalities, to unite the working class regardless of gender, race, age, disability, creed or ‘social class’, it will be stymied.

Addressing actual inequality, also known as redistributive politics, would see funds flow into the poorest parts of the country, massive schemes for socialized housing and community facilities. It would see power flow from the State, whatever its agenda, to people – e.g. through taking the chains off the organised labour movement, and allowing people to come to an understanding with one another. This is itself a class project, the opposite class project to the gathering of all the reins of power into the hands of a few already-powerful and wealthy people.

The class power bestowed on the working class could then be used to overwhelm the opposition and challenge all forms of inequality. This is not what Harman has in mind, of course. The best Harman could cite as a New Labour policy aim was Clause 1 of the Equality Bill:

“[I]n every important action these public authorities take, and in every important decision they make, they will have to ask themselves – “will this help tackle the inequalities in our society which are rooted in income and wealth?”  This will apply to Government departments.  It will apply to the decisions of Ministers, as well as to local government and to Regional Development Agencies.”

Which is all very noble, I’m sure, but it rather escapes the harmful effect many of New Labour’s more direct policies have; the employer-friendly Work Trial scheme, the continuing attempt to squeeze even valid claimants off ESA, the effects of privatising council housing stock on rent costs, housing standards and numbers of Houses in Multiple Occupancy, bailing out the banks (plus bonuses) and landing the cost on the working class and so on. The proof in the pudding is that inequality under New Labour is the worst since records began in 1961 (h/t).

But this is not just a case of New Labour talking Left and acting Right.

Through the idea of equality, as defined by Harriet Harman and her New Labour colleagues, the Labour leadership are trying to find a pressure valve, through which to vent and re-direct the ambitions and passions of Labour members away from “outdated” issues like trades union rights, that could directly achieve, and encourage workers themselves to achieve, better terms and conditions from employers and ultimately a better deal from the State. Unfortunately far too many, including the Guardian, get taken in.

Instead the issue of equality is to be addressed in bureaucratic fashion through the arms of the managerialist state. I do not believe this to be sufficient.

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