The New Statesman Esssay - Up and down the social ladder

Meritocracy doesn't work, says Roy Hattersley. If Blair read more he'd know why

To Tony Blair, political ideas are less a blueprint by which to govern than weapons in the battle to decide which government should be elected. That does not mean that he lacks sincerity in his convictions. Quite the opposite. He is so sure that his beliefs are self-evidently right that, like the worst of old Labour, he regards ideological analysis as a waste of time. What needs to be done, in his view, is too obvious to need theoretical justification. Constructing an ethical framework, within which to hang each policy, is dangerous self-indulgence. The Prime Minister takes an interest in philosophy only when the focus groups tell him that he needs to rise above the adverse headlines.

That is why he strikes such a chord round the dining tables of Middle England. There, the common wisdom is that men and women of goodwill should come together and, putting aside ideology and party politics, "do what is best for the country". No prime minister this century has been less partisan than Blair - he consults his vanquished opponents, appoints the casualties of defeat to high-profile sinecures, repudiates or emasculates policies which are supported by his old friends but opposed by his new allies. It is the classic formula for winning general elections - take the loyalty of traditional supporters for granted and do what is necessary to win new recruits.

Ecumenicism, however, does have its problems. Blair was lucky that reports of his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) last week concentrated on the two paragraphs which announced that the middle classes were expanding. This was not a particularly novel discovery but it mercifully distracted attention from the rest of the speech, which exposed the vacuum that passes, in new Labour circles, for a coherent philosophy of government.

The failure is summed up in a single sentence by which the Prime Minister describes his vision of the good society. In ten years' time (Utopia is nearer than we realised) "we will have an expanded middle class with ladders of opportunity for those from all backgrounds, no more ceilings that prevent people from achieving the success they merit".

More ladders and fewer ceilings are precisely what politicians of the centre-right have promised for 130 years, since William Gladstone abolished the purchase of commissions in the armed forces, opened the ancient universities to Dissenters, and introduced competitive examinations for Civil Service entry. And from the left has come the counter argument that, in an inherently unequal society, equality of opportunity is a mirage. For some people, there will always be ceilings while the existence of the ladders simply becomes the justification for their remaining in perpetual poverty. The disturbing feature of the Prime Minister's philosophy is not that he disagrees with critics of meritocracy as diverse as R H Tawney and John Rawls, but that he shows no sign of ever having read a word they wrote.

There is not even any evidence to suggest that, as the speech was being drafted, the Prime Minister and his advisers sat down to consider the implications of "the ladder principle". Perhaps prime ministers do not have time for such deliberation. But then, all previous Labour occupants of No 10 were familiar with the frailty of ladders before they entered Downing Street. The case is easily set out. You need ladders only in a hierarchical society. Their purpose is to enable the industrious and talented members of the lower orders to climb all the way to the top. An ethical question immediately arises. It was answered by Michael Young, author of The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) and the sociologist who gave the word to the language. "Being a member of the lucky sperm club confers no moral right to advantage. What one is born with or without is not of one's own doing." However, until we get to heaven, genes (perhaps more than any other factor) will determine a person's position in society. But environment - the condition in which we are born and bred - also has a crucial influence. How else do so many stupid old Etonians get into the House of Commons?

That is the crux of the matter. Some children, because of the disadvantages with which they are born, are incapable of climbing ladders. As Tawney put it, "opportunities to rise are not a substitute for a large measure of practical equality of income and social condition. The existence of such opportunities . . . depends not only upon an open road but upon an equal start." The classic "ladder of escape" was the selective system of secondary education which this government refuses to abolish. But the ceilings still hold back the poor from their fair share of grammar-school education - not because they are stupid but because the allocation tests are unavoidably biased in favour of the middle classes.

Yet Blair, or at least Blairism, rejects "practical equality" - a condition that can be approached only by conscious redistribution. Indeed, in a conversation with me which preceded a profile I wrote for the Observer, the Prime Minister rejected what he dismissively described as "economic determinism" - the indisputable fact, demonstrated 40 years ago by the National Children's Bureau survey Born to Fail, that poverty inhibits progress. He seems really to believe that, if the institutional barriers to progress are removed, everybody has an equal chance to succeed - the illegitimate daughter of a Pakistani teenager in my old central Birmingham constituency no less than the son of a company accountant down the road in Solihull. But he should find out what happened when Gladstone removed the institutional barriers to Civil Service appointments and military commissions. In the absence of "practical equality", the same people got most of the jobs. They still do.

If the Prime Minister needs evidence of the consequences of modern inequality he needs only to read the report that Sir Donald Acheson prepared for the Secretary of State for Health. Frank Dobson's response to its findings was one of the most heartening moments in the life of this Labour government. The increase in health service investment, though not as spectacular as the Prime Minister's IPPR speech suggests, is a cause for real rejoicing. But, as Acheson makes clear, the health service will continue to fail the nation as long as we have an unequal society.

Acheson did more than list the detriments that are endured by the sub-subsistence families - more coronary illness, more cancer, more lung disease, more violent deaths. He asserted - indeed he demonstrated - that societies with narrow income distributions are healthier than those with wide disparities of wealth. The more equal the society, the more healthy its members. The problem of the poor is that they have no money - for proper heating, suitable clothes, adequate nutrition. And we know that in an unequal society, the families below the poverty line are doomed to remain poor in absolute as well as relative terms. That is the miserable truth of the past 20 years. As the nation has grown more prosperous, extended inequality has made the poor poorer as well as the rich richer. That injustice cannot be solved by "ladders out of deprivation". There are not institutional or structural barriers that prevent lower-income patients being treated by the health service - just shortage of resources. Is there a figure that reveals how many millionaires are waiting for an intensive-care bed - or indeed for elective surgery?

And there is a second inherent flaw in the "ladders theory". Ladders are necessary only if there is a pit from which the disadvantaged need to climb. But, having accepted that there is a part of society from which escape is imperative, the ladder theorists have to admit that only a proportion of the prisoners will be able to escape. The rest are left to rot. A meritocracy is simply a society in which the patterns of inequality change, not one which eliminates even the grossest inequalities. That is why J K Galbraith once wondered how much worse it was to live in the totalitarian Soviet Union than to be poor and black in one of the ghettos of the United States, where the American Dream was ad-speak for a meritocracy. Perhaps Galbraith is on the Downing Street index of forbidden reading.

Contempt for a coherent philosophical position leads politicians into all sorts of absurdities. For example, they set out general platitudes which they have clearly not applied in practice. Thus the IPPR speech asserts new Labour's belief that "markets are the best way to distribute resources - but they are fallible. So they must be underpinned by proper rules and regulations. And they have their limits. So they cannot provide services like education . . ."

That is a sentiment with which none of the socialist "revisionists" of the fifties and sixties would have disagreed. Indeed the great argument of those distant days revolved around the Croslandite belief that free enterprise was, in most economic sectors, essential to political democracy as well as economic efficiency. But Anthony Crosland searched for an improved form of socialism, not an alternative with which to replace it. So when he argued that markets were inappropriate to the provision of education, he meant it. Blair, whether he knows it or not, clearly believes the opposite.

How else would he describe the idea of private companies being asked to bid for the right to manage schools in areas where, according to the standards watchdog Ofsted, the local education authority has failed in its duty? And if he really does believe that some public services are inappropriate to private (that is to say market competitive) ownership, why does he not include prisons on his list of exclusions? Putting aside the moral (indeed the aesthetic) objection to private companies holding men and women in custody, a second objection is obvious. Their raison d'etre makes them do the job badly. Their first duty is to their shareholders' profits, not the success of the service. And they certainly do not have the spur of competition to keep them up to the mark. If private prisons, why not private police?

The unreconstructed right has answers to such questions. Though unattractive, they are intellectually coherent. Of course, the right would say, there should be private (commercially owned and organised) police. The same rules should apply to protection from crime as to the provision of retirement pensions. The better-off should have the right to buy extra cover and, in exercising that right (pace the United States of America), they would be reducing the burden of public expenditure. New Labour, by contrast, picks and chooses from von Hayek's agenda. And in doing so it appears either opportunistic or incoherent. A government ought to have more regard for its reputation.

New Labour is recklessly willing to sacrifice all claim to intellectual consistency in the pursuit of power. The principal example of obvious absurdity is the government's secondary education policy, which was supposed to bridge the gap between common sense and electoral necessity. Labour's education policy is based on "standards not structures" - implying a dichotomy when everybody, left and right, realises that the two issues are interdependent. It is possible to make out a case for and against selective secondary education, but to be neutral is to be ridiculous. Ideological integrity and intellectual respectability go hand in hand - and failures in both particulars cannot be hidden by calculated ambiguities such as "modernising the comprehensive system".

One of the problems of Blairism - exemplified time after time in the IPPR speech - is the apparently genuine belief that it is possible to govern in a way that benefits every section of society simultaneously. It is not. John Rawls tells us what ought to be the obvious truth. "When liberties are left unrestricted they collide and it is the duty of democratic governments to adjudicate between conflicting claims." The liberty of working men or women to negotiate their wages and conditions of service through a trade union cannot be reconciled with employers' rights to refuse recognition. More important, a rich man's freedom to keep 60 per cent of his salary cannot be reconciled with the right of every single mother to bring up her child in comfort. The Acheson report was specific about the need for "a shift of resources to the less well off, both in and out of work" as the only way to end the gross inequalities in health. "Shift of resources" is a coded way of describing redistribution, the necessity that dare not speak its name in Whitehall.

We must all decide for ourselves if it is sentimentalism or cynicism which makes the Prime Minister pretend that he can benefit all of the people all of the time. But we can be sure that when the "tough decisions", of which we hear so much, are implemented, they will never be tough on the rich.

The language of the IPPR speech - as well as the policy proposals with which it comes - confirms that the Prime Minister's psychology as well as his philosophy is alien to the Labour tradition. Most sincere politicians, among whom I certainly include Tony Blair, go into politics to help some specific group within society - they have a typical person in mind who has to be enfranchised, protected, provided with benefits that were previously denied or freed from constraints that prevented justified progress. Because of my upbringing in Sheffield local politics I joined the Labour Party in the hope of helping the industrial poor. When I became a Birmingham MP, the race and religion of my typical person changed. But the family I had in mind was still near the bottom of the heap.

Blair is fighting for quite different people - young owner occupiers with high material aspirations for themselves and their children, stable yet ambitious, socially aware but not sufficiently concerned about their distant neighbour to make major sacrifices on behalf of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. They are admirable citizens - which is no doubt why the Prime Minister hopes to meet their needs. They are also - unlike the poor - key voters in marginal constituencies.

The writer was deputy leader of the Labour Party, 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage