Equality must be at the centre of a vision for a better society

The challenge is to have sufficient imagination that we construct a sufficiently radical alternative.

Even hard-bitten progressives are shocked by food banks. We talk about austerity and the damage to our society, but the reality of extreme poverty, of foodbanks, teachers bringing in breakfast for starving children, families moving because of cuts in benefit, an explosion of Wonga loans, still shocks and surprises.  Many of us will want to get busy campaigning, marching with the TUC on the 20 October. But we need to do more.

We need to reassert that equality is a central concern for progressives. Class, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, the trade-union backed Think Tank, today publishes Why Inequality Matters. A popular version of the seminal The Spirit Level, it argues compellingly that inequality has been rising, and that inequality is bad for society as well as those who suffer directly.  Wilkinson and Pickett’s book  was inspirational, and began to shift the terms of debate. Peter Mandelson’s infamous “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” was firmly thrown in the dustbin of history. This pamphlet is an attempt to more widely develop these arguments, to ensure that the alternatives to Austerity embrace startegies for equality at their heart.

Ed Miliband’s talk of “predistribution”, while somewhat wonkish, certainly seem to be on the same page. As does Len McCluskey ‘s call this week for a £1 increase in the minimum wage. Economists such as Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and Stewart Lansley have increasingly stressed that more equality is an essential precondition for more stable economies less prone to recession. The filthy rich don’t spend their money, while working people spend their money and increase demand.

Joseph Stiglitz, another Nobel prize winner, in his most recent book, The Price of Inequality, develops these arguments providing a powerful critique of free market ideas. He also links inequality to the argument that flexible labour markets contribute to economic strength, arguing instead that stronger worker protections correct an imbalance of power. Weakened unions have thus contributed to greater inequality – an important argument in support of fair laws for unions to replace current restrictive legislation.

The Spirit Level and the widespread dissemination of this pamphlet and the new popularity of the importance of equality may be compared to the publication in 1931 of R H Tawney’s Equality. Tawney, Beveridge and Keynes were all part of the ideological development that was to become dominant in the war years. A set of ideas that underpinned political development. Ideas that contributed to the Social democratic settlement of 1945, and ushered in the welfare state.

The challenge for today is to have sufficient imagination that we construct a sufficiently radical alternative, with equality embedded, that can be a new settlement for our times. The lurch to the right of the cabinet reshuffle demonstrates that while the left may see the bankruptcy of the Tory response to the crisis, they are confidently pursing the dismantlement of our welfare state. Far from conceding the defeat of neo-liberalism , the Tory right, as with Mitt Romney in the US, would take us down an ultra-neo-Liberal road. With carefree abandon, they would happily see an impoverished society, ruled by the one per cent - a scorched earth apocalyptic vision.

This is a world where triangulation is meaningless; where our responsibility is to construct a compelling vision of a credible alternative. Equality at the centre of such a vision, for a better society  for all, and better conditions for working people, provides the basis also for constructing the necessary alliances across society to become a compelling majority.

After a decade of disillusion and estrangement of people from politics, a new grit is appearing, the necessity of political involvement, the beginning of a new passion for political change. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is on the right track if it can embrace these ideas, and turn the early ideas, the notion of constructing a new settlement into convincing policy positions.

Our intention in publishing this pamphlet, indeed the whokle purpose of this new think tank, is to generate debate across the labour movement. If we can shift the terms of debate in a progressive direction, we will be delighted.

Will we look back in twenty years and say – The Spirit Level and the pamphlet Why Inequality Matters were decisive contributors to the mood which won the 2015 election and propelled Britain towards a new progressive settlement? A bit ambitious perhaps, but on the other hand…..

Steve Hart is chair of of Class and political director of Unite

Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is on the right track. Photograph: Getty Images
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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