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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Did John McCain just save Obamacare? What's next for the Affordable Care Act

To gasps in the Senate, McCain announced he was against the "skinny repeal" bill - and cast the deciding vote.

The last time John McCain, the maverick Republican senator from Arizona, had a chance to shift the course of history, it was 2008 and he was running for President against Barack Obama. 

This time, McCain interrupted his treatment for brain cancer to come back to Washington to vote on the Republican attempt to repeal Obama's biggest domestic legacy - the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

President Donald Trump, who ran on a platform of scrapping Obamacare, seemed convinced McCain's vote was in the bag. He also managed to convince wide sections of the left-wing twitterati, who put aside qualms about attacking an ailing octogenarian. 

But it was McCain who had the last word. To gasps in the Senate, McCain announced he was voting against the "skinny repeal" bill - the deciding vote which sank the bill by 51 votes to 49. 

McCain ended the day with a plea for a return to bipartisan politics, from both the Democrats and Republicans. He said: "We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation's governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people. We must do the hard work our citizens expect of us and deserve."

So while McCain may have proved himself his own man, what next for Obamacare? Here's what you need to know:

What were the Republicans trying to do?

The Republicans spent years in opposition vilifying Obamacare, but here's the problem - even for those Republicans who hate every inch of the Affordable Care Act, replacing it is a huge operation. Now they truly do have the power to take healthcare away from poor and sick voters, some are having doubts. 

So the bill to repeal it was "skinny" - it would have repealed the obligation for employers to offer workers healthcare, and the obligation for individuals to take out health insurance, or pay a penalty in higher taxes. It would have also given states more flexibility to create their own healthcare systems. 

The problem is, the Affordable Care Act isn't just about legislation, but about playing the rules of the insurance game. In an insurance market, your insurance can only be cheap if the chance of the insurer paying out is low. In other words, for Obamacare to work smoothly, you need young and health people signed up to it rather than just a self-selected group of the sick. Remove the obligation to take out health insurance, and the second scenario looks much more likely. 

So what will they do next?

After the vote, the stunned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "It's time to move on." However, Trump tweeted the more cryptic: "Let ObamaCare implode, then deal."

For all Trump's bluster, this might be the end of the Republican Party's Grand Plan to Destroy Obamacare. Whether it means Obama's legacy is safe, though, is another matter.

The Affordable Care Act might have become a temple of the left, but there are problems with it. For example, insurers have been dropping out, and middle-income Americans are facing an increase in premiums at an average of 25 per cent in 2017. 

If the Republicans truly want to run Obama's legacy into the ground, they can just sit back and refuse to consider any improvements to the system - a la Trump's strategy.

On the other hand, McCain has called for more bipartisanship. If moderate Republicans and Democrats were willing to listen to him, they might be able to produce a wonkish bill that addresses some of the real concerns of middle America while preserving the principle of affordable care.

But based on the Trump administration's progress so far, this kind of co-operation looks unlikely. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.