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.
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.
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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