Home > Dave's Favourites, General Politics, Labour Party News, Socialism > New Labour and the ‘Good Society’

New Labour and the ‘Good Society’

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.

  1. January 23, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    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.

    As opposed to…. revolution? Class concious raising? etc etc?

    I mean, you always tell us why you hate centre-lefties, but there’s very little on what progress is being made by the far left in organising themselves to achieve power, overthrow the system etc.

  2. January 23, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    As opposed to any number of things, Sunny, even from an extremely reformist point of view. Conflating reform with an expanding state bureaucracy is not ever something I figured you for.

    The correctness of my argument should not be contingent upon the far left sorting themselves into some form of coherent political force, any more than the veracity or falsity of the Tory arguments can be contingent upon them winning the next election. This type of “we’re bigger and better than you, therefore we’re more correct than you” is just dick waving and serves no purpose.

  3. January 23, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Well Labour’s ‘centre-left’ has brought us so much equality recently hasn’t it? To the point where under New Labour inequality is now more pronounced than it was under Thatcher. I imagine Sunny H bought into Blairite New Labour’s 1997 solution for inequality “Education, education education” hook, line and bloody sinker.

    As for “Hands On Hattie” is this the same woman who:
    Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.
    Voted very strongly for introducing foundation hospitals.
    Voted strongly for introducing student top-up fees.
    Voted strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
    Voted very strongly for the Iraq war.
    Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
    Voted very strongly for replacing Trident.
    Voted moderately against laws to stop climate change.
    And who, as a minister cut lone parents benefits, and
    sent her son to a grammar school?

    You know, I do believe it is, or are there two Harriet Harmans?

    I don’t believe Harman and New Labour “conflate the issue of equality with the issue of identity”. I think identity politics is New Labour’s idea of equality, it’s inclusive just so long as you don’t mention CLASS! (Dread word).

    Someone ought to tell Harman and co. that there’s a little more to equality than one of her affluent mates in the media a wearing a t-shirt saying “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like”

  4. January 23, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    “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.”

    It used to be common for some figures in the Labour Party to conflate both the ruling class and the Tories – though given that the Tory party has traditionally been unlike other parties of its kind in Europe, lacking in membership amongst trade unionists and wage-workers.

    I’m glad that the issue is being raised at least.

    I’ve suggested to Harriet that there be a greater focus on co-ownership as a means to reducing inequality. Given that those private sector businesses which have sustained the recession, maintain better wage rates than their competitors and invest more in the broader community, are either member-owned (credit unions, building societies, consumer co-ops, etc) or employee-owned (worker co-ops, partnerships like John Lewis, etc) then explicit and legislative support should be forthcoming…

  5. January 23, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Brown’s recent speech about increasing ‘social mobility’ backs up your argument 100%. Like all Labour’s neo-liberal policies, this sounds like a good thing on the surface, but scrape off the sequins and you realise you have a ropey old pair of pumps.

    ‘Social mobility’ is different from ‘social justice’ – it accepts the structural inequalities that exist in capitalist society, the exploitation of man by man, and merely gives the opportunity for a few people born into the lowest strata to gain admission to the charmed circle of the elite, leaving the rest behind to rot.

  6. January 23, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    In reply to Sunny: puncturing the myths propagated by Harman and her co-thinkers is a vital first step. If you buy into this false rhetoric then you don’t stand a chance of making progress. This is precisely because, as Dave acknowledges, following Harman’s agenda means diverting attention away from other, more productive, possibilites. It isn’t a choice of: support the futile official ‘Equalities’ agenda or do nothing. Even within a conventional reformist worldview there are far greater possibilites than you’ll find in any of Harman’s speeches.

    There is a particular danger in Sunny’s comment of perpetuating that awful old cliche of the most conservative people being ‘realists’ while anyone to their left is indulging in rhetoric. But there’s nothing realistic about thinking you can address inequality without actually redistributing wealth. That, in fact, is pure rhetoric. The realists are those who pursue political action fighting for genuine change, not trading vacuous phrases at Compass events.

  7. January 24, 2010 at 1:35 am


    This type of “we’re bigger and better than you, therefore we’re more correct than you” is just dick waving and serves no purpose.

    See I always find it difficult to explain this over blogs. I’d rather we have some sort of debate over coffee about this.

    My point is that the socialist left spends a lot of time criticising the centre-left for not saying the things they want her to say. It just goes round and round – you guys are not getting the true state of how things should be etc. etc.

    This of course leads to several things: it creates bad blood between the centre left and far left, to the point that they don’t want to work with each other and the centre left spend as much time as possible ignoring or distancing themselves from the socialists.

    It ensures that the left isn’t coherent on anything, and there isn’t a sense on the left that we’re going in the same direction. Too much infighting for that.

    It also means that the right is able to capitalise on this friction by maintaining discipline, getting power and pushing the spectrum to the right.

    Which only means the centre left has to ignore the socialist left even more, and the latter go even further away from achieving what they want. In the long term no one’s happy – though at least we can bitch and moan at each other hey?

  8. January 24, 2010 at 11:09 am

    “This of course leads to several things: it creates bad blood between the centre left and far left, to the point that they don’t want to work with each other and the centre left spend as much time as possible ignoring or distancing themselves from the socialists.”

    Bad blood? Doesn’t this reflect fundamental criticisms of each other? The problem with Harriet Harman was/is still part of the NL machine adhering to neoliberalism, in other words, class warfare. What is forgotten here is that when the Left did have power in 1980s in some town halls it spearheaded a lot of these reforms around equalities i.e. anti-racism, ‘Positive Images’ campaign in Haringey’ etc. and the left were accused of being ‘loony left’. And now these issues are now mainstream and within the Equalities Bill. The ‘Bennite’ Left did achieve something back then. When the Left had a chance, we took it and here are the results, I certainly lived and campaigned through it!

    The thing with Harriet Harman is that she has had 12-odd years to push equalities. Also one of her tasks when she was Secretary of State for Social Security in ’97 (maintaining Tory spending plans btw) abolished the lone parent rate of Child Benefit. NL (and to reiterate she is part of that) had so many chances to transform and create an equal and more justice society.

    And as I wrote on my own blog, Harman’s priorities in which meetings to attend expose her politics, Compass over Southwark UNISON Black Workers’ Group and Movement for Justice. A soft-left political debating society as opposed to talking to grass roots TU activists… Again, shows where her priorities lie…

    Oh, and finally Harman spoke at the Compass and Freidrich Ebert Stiftung Conference. Freidrich Ebert ….. the man who sided with the right-wing, voted for War Credits in 1918 (let’s not forget…Harman voted for the Iraq war in 2003) and he stabbed the Socialist revolution in Germany out.

    • Tom Miller
      February 19, 2010 at 3:47 pm

      Because the name of a German think tank is a perfectly good criticism of Harriet Harman…

      I do happen to think that Sunny is right, far too much concentration in this place as at others on what divides the hard and soft left. The soft left spends its time attacking a mixture of blairism and the Tories, especially where there is confluence and convergence. Attacks on the hard left exist, but are rare, and often short and dismissive.

      The hard left spends as much time attacking us as Luke Akehurst does. It’s ridiculous. The obvious strategy is to hope to grow by attacking those closest to them within the party. The result, however, tends to be bemusement followed by bitterness.

      These being the objective results thus far, this is hardly an encouraging situation in the fact of a resurgent Tory Party and a Labour Party that will, however the election goes, have to be in a mental condition whereby it is prepared for hard truths (the failure of New Labour to win for those at the bottom or achieve hegemony over public discourse or therefore electoral politics).

      Just want to chase a few things though, on the post itself.
      Firstly, Harman is not of the soft or centre-left or the soft left of the party. She is on the soft right of the Labour Party.

      In many ways her opinions mirror ‘liberation politicians’ in the party’s youth movement, many of whom seem to thoroughly divorce class issues and analysis (along with financial inequality more generally) from ‘identity politics’, a massive sop to apparent radicalism that avoids them having to say anything off-message that might cost the treasury or cause heads to be scratched at Number 10. Many of these are right-wing feminists who also seem not to care about other aspects of identity based oppression around disability, race, and even sexuality.

      For Harman, there are real incentives to act like this. She is in the cabinet. For youth politicians, one can assume that it exists only because of upbringing or poor levels of political education, probably both.

      • February 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm

        I don’t believe I asserted that Harman was soft-Left. In fact I called her Blairite on a number of occasions.

        As for the idea that I spend too much time jumping up and down on the soft-Left, Tom, even once would be too much for you – a fact which belies a staggering inability to accept any sort of critique, which is by and large what I write – and which you answer.

        With regard to how I divide up my time, Tom, most of my political activity doesn’t even need to make reference to the soft-Left. No one I work with has heard of them.

        At any rate, the “objective result” of what the hard/far Left does is fuck all to do with the state of the Labour Party Tom. The state of Labour is to do with a) leadership policies and b) lack of credible ‘soft Left’ policy positions that don’t shade into a light touch of Blairism.

        Finally, as regard to your snipe at Louise, you can fuck right off. The name of the think tank is important as it denotes what wing of the SDP it’s coming from – and Louise is absolutely correct in pointing to some of the past achievements of this wing; tying it to Harman’s own views, it paints a picture.

  9. January 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    I’m always conscious that Benn himself was on the right of the party during the sixties, and it was the movement from without that had the effect of changing his perspective. So, I welcome Harman’s focus on this issue.

    • January 24, 2010 at 5:31 pm

      James, I don’t see much sign that Harman is experiencing a Benn-like shift to the Left. Do you?

      • January 24, 2010 at 11:05 pm

        Optimism of the will comrade, is always ruined by pessimism of the intellect😉

        We can but hope…

  10. January 24, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Sunny, the bad blood between socialist Left and centre-Left isn’t just caused by what I (or even other much more influential people) say on a blog. What I say on a blog is caused by other things – and where the centre-Left and socialist Left are concerned, some of those things are deservedly acrimonious.

    There is are several clear dividing lines between centre- and far/hard Left; the most basic is capitalism, but there are others which stem from this, such as the nature of political leadership, the purpose of political strategy (any political strategy) and so on. These don’t go away if we don’t talk about them. Quite the opposite. They could become much more debilitating.

    Incidentally, this article wasn’t attacking Compass. If I had wanted to do that, I’d have dwelt at length on Harpy’s point that this was a speech to Compass and its partners, a foundation built around the legacy of a man directly responsible for the use of soldiers against socialists and even plain workers who weren’t interested in much explicit politics but wanted a better lot and had the courage to fight for it. I wouldn’t classify Harriet Harman as anything-Left, and if she is, we need better terminology for what constitutes ‘our’ side.

    Please know that any time you want to meet for coffee, and I’m available, if you think that you have some strategies for co-operation between socialist- and centre-Left, I’m all ears.

    As an addendum, I also think you mischaracterise the unity of the Right. Until recently I spent very little time looking at the Right blogosphere beyond the odd Iain Dale nonsense – but now I read the Spectator and a bunch of the better wikio ranked Right blogs. They are just as fractious as the rest of us. I don’t think it’s in unity where they trump the Left.

  11. February 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    Saw Harman speak in Middlesbrough the other day, here’s my blogpost on the event: http://hands-of-the-many.blogspot.com/2010/02/q-with-harriet-harman-in-middlesbrough.html

  1. January 23, 2010 at 10:07 pm
  2. January 27, 2010 at 10:30 pm
  3. January 28, 2010 at 9:07 pm

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