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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt