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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's Virgin video is a Jennifer's Ear for modern times

Just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true, regardless of the creative shortcuts.

Memory is a funny thing, in politics as in life. Gordon Brown was the co-architect of New Labour, the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1823 and very probably helped avert the end of money during the financial crisis.

But when James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, ran focus groups in Nuneaton earlier this year, they  found that the incident that most people associated with Brown was of him punching a protestor during the 2001 general election. Except, here’s the thing: Brown never threw the punch at all. It was John Prescott, the then-deputy Prime Minister, who landed the blow.

And although Piggate was the funniest furore that David Cameron (remember: he was accused of having put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth at university) was involved in, it wasn’t the dead pig that focus groups remembered when they were asked about Cameron – right throughout his premiership, it was photos of Cameron cycling to work with a car carrying his papers following on behind that stuck in people’s minds.

The appeal of the latter row, and with the spat between Virgin Trains and Jeremy Corbyn, is that it feeds into an idea that is commonly believed by most people: that politicians are hypocrites. Our brains reward us with feelgood sensations for confirming our beliefs and with negative ones with findings that run contrary to them.

In case you haven’t followed: in the beginning, a viral video of Jeremy Corbyn depicted the Labour leader eschewing a first class upgrade to work in the aisle of a crowded Virgin train. Today, Virgin Trains hit back, revealing CCTV footage showing that there were, in fact, spare seats available from the start of the journey.

Of course, it is in Virgin’s interests to push back against a high-profile criticism of its services (not so much to avoid renationalisation but also the loss of the contract to another company) just as it is in Corbyn’s to have a sharper, video-friendly version of the – 100 per cent authentic – images of him on a bus home that frequently exploded on Twitter and Facebook during last summer’s Labour leadership election.

It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour party political broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The  advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.

But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-Turned once the broadcast had aired. (To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother, both Conservatives, also denounced the broadcast.)

Labour was plunged into controversy. The rights and wrongs of the row are still contentious, just as this row is likely to remain too. And it emerged very swiftly that key elements of the planning of the broadcast were shambolic – Cook’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the case were not as thorough as might have been hoped, the consultant had not been spoken to in detail, and the Toryism of Jennifer’s mother and grandmother came as a total shock. It may be that similar behind-the-scenes errors emerge about the Virgin video.

But just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true – operations were cancelled and delayed due to underfunding, there are numerous trains that are overcrowded, where people have to sit in aisles, and so on.

Of course, Corbyn has a particular glass jaw over any issue that appears to be “spun” due to his “kinder politics” line. Just as Tony Blair promised to be “purer than pure”. it's a pledge that is the political equivalent of handing your opponent a stick and then politely explaining how best to hit you with it.  

Although the row over Jennifer’s Ear is now largely forgotten, it was one of the many scapegoats for Labour’s shock defeat in 1992, albeit one that every serious study into the loss concluded had nothing to do with the final result. (And it’s worth pointing out that even losing a row about the issues that your party “owns”, be it health or what to do with the railways, tends to be better for your side than talking about issues on which your party is on hostile territory)  Corbyn’s sitting arrangements, like the ear, will have a similarly limited afterlife. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.