The New Statesman Essay - Bring back the e-word

Peter Kellner argues that a new century requires a new definition of equality

It is now commonplace to observe that three fundamental changes are transforming the world: first, the triumph of liberal capitalism over state socialism; second, the dismantling of trade and currency controls and the globalisation of economic forces; third, the shift from machine-based to information-based industry, in which the ownership of factories matters less than the control and manipulation of knowledge. It is also commonplace to observe that national politics must adapt to this new environment. The question is: how?

Much of the Third Way debate has been about tackling this question. So far, a few tentative answers have emerged. At their heart - as the Prime Minister acknowledged in his Beveridge lecture in March 1999 - is the concept of "mutual responsibility". This asserts that neither individuals nor companies - nor, indeed, nations - are separate, atomised entities; but have mutual, and wider social, obligations. Within this framework, the Third Way seeks an approach to the governance of liberal capitalism that avoids the perils both of laissez-faire markets and of excessive state control.

The quest for such an approach has led to a recognition that the new politics should concentrate on values and goals. This contrasts with the obsession of the old politics for processes - in particular, who owns what. A new consensus is emerging that acknowledges that there is no single perfect process, no one form of ownership or market mechanism suitable for all industries at all times.

Applied properly, this is a profoundly radical proposal. Yes, it is about "what works" (as the Prime Minister has famously described his approach to policy-making), but it goes far wider than that. It eschews dogma but not purpose or vision. It insists that society is not merely a cork bobbing up and down on waters it cannot control: it says we can influence the tides and currents, too. It asserts that government (at European, national, regional and local levels) can and should take responsibility for securing defined outcomes, rather than leaving them solely to the interplay of individuals.

But for all its radicalism, it is not necessarily a left-of-centre proposal. It distinguishes new from old politics, but not left from right. In time, the Conservatives will surely adapt to the new environment, as they have adapted so successfully in the past. Once they find a way to keep their libertarians and laissez-faire enthusiasts under control, they are also likely to discard the politics of ideology and process. That day may not be far off. William Hague's "common sense revolution" suggests that they are already beginning to emerge from their old politics bunker.

The challenge for progressive parties, then, is to go beyond advocacy of the new politics as such, and to decide what kind of new politics to espouse. They need to identify an ambition that is distinctively centre-left. My contention is that equality provides that goal.

Until Tony Blair's Bournemouth speech, the e-word was out of fashion among Labour modernisers. They feared that it might arouse hostile reactions - from middle-class voters thinking their taxes will go up, from business leaders thinking their market freedoms will be curtailed, from bright entrepreneurs thinking they will find it harder and socially less acceptable to become rich, from Daily Mail leader-writers and assorted newspaper columnists deploring Labour's reversion to grey uniformity. This defensiveness was always unnecessary. Properly defined, equality has the following virtues:

- it is morally right;

- it clearly locates new Labour as centre-left rather than centre-right;

- it can inspire party members;

- it can appeal to core voters - and also the middle classes.

In order to map out "equality" for the terrain of the new politics, we must first push to one side some of the boulders of the old politics. Equality of outcome - the same income for everyone - is an impossible and (most would now argue) undesirable dream. Equality of opportunity is more attractive, but is at best a partial concept, which tends to concentrate on education and training.

Those are not the only problems. Any realistic analysis must confront the awkward truth that in open, liberal economies in which high taxes are electorally unpopular, the distribution of money incomes is certain to remain unequal, and may become more so. That does not stop a left-of-centre government using the tax and benefits system to secure a more equitable distribution of post-tax income than a right-of-centre government would. But we should not rely on such policies to carry more than a small part of the burden of creating a more equal society. The task is to develop a deeper concept of equality, rooted in what the Prime Minister and others have called "equal worth".

What is it, and what policies are needed to bring it about? Here are five elements.

1. Securing full political and civic equality

In formal terms, the 20th century saw the comprehensive and virtually universal triumph of the principle that all adults should have an equal political voice at the ballot box. Discrimination by property, gender and race has largely gone. So has the hereditary principle in the selection of legislators, with Britain finally falling into line more than 60 years after the rest of Europe.

Informally, however, many political and civic inequalities remain. Some of the trickiest moments for Blair's government have flowed from allegations that wealthy donors to the Labour Party have been able to influence people and policies. Rupert Murdoch's capacity to sway the government is much discussed, even if proof of his powers of persuasion remains elusive. And so on. At the very least, the government has failed to establish what should be beyond question for a progressive government: that its judgement of the national interest takes as much notice of the pauper as the millionaire.

Within the police and judicial system, the task of ensuring equality of treatment for people of all ethnic backgrounds remains unfinished; the Stephen Lawrence inquiry uncovered graphic evidence of the scale of the problem. In other areas, most notably gay rights, more progress is at last being made, on both the age of consent and recruitment to the armed forces. Overall, the attainment of full political and civic equality is an urgent, but realistic, objective for the first years of the new century.

2. Ending group inequalities

A wide spread of incomes may be inevitable, but that does not leave the equal-income agenda completely blank. If men continue, on average, to earn more than women, and white employees more than black, then we have forms of inequality that are offensive and should be eliminated. This has two elements: one that the law covers, albeit imperfectly, and one for which the law provides little, if any, remedy. The first concerns the right to equal pay for work of equal value. If one employee doing the same, or equivalent, job as another earns less on account of his or her race or gender, then the employer is acting illegally.

At least we have a framework for putting that right. But even if that kind of discrimination were eliminated completely, the chances are that men would continue to earn more than women, on average, and white workers more than black. This brings us to the second element: inequalities of race and gender stem from deeper defects in our culture. They reflect different opportunities and expectations, the pursuit of different role models and a range of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) biases in which white males seek to recruit in their own image. The task is to alter the culture, remove the biases, redesign many role models and equalise opportunities and expectations. If these things are done, the income gaps will close; if they are not done, the gaps will remain, and "equal worth" will not be achieved.

3. Abolishing poverty

In his Beveridge lecture, the Prime Minister announced his target of abolishing child poverty within 20 years. What, though, does this mean, and how can we judge whether it has been achieved? A largely sterile debate has been conducted between those who define poverty in absolute terms (going hungry, homelessness and so on) and those who define it in relative terms (usually setting the "poverty line" at half the average household income). Neither is wholly satisfactory. Concepts of poverty do change as society evolves. A family in 1950 would not have been deemed poor simply because it could not afford a telephone, television set or a refrigerator. Today, a family that could not afford these "necessities" would generally be thought to live below the poverty line.

On the other hand, too rigid a devotion to the half-average-income formula can produce some perverse effects. If the government gives extra money to people only just below the poverty line, so that they creep above it, ministers will be able to proclaim a reduction in the number of poor people. But if it gives the money to the very poorest, so they rise closer to the poverty line, but not over it, then the statistics would show no change in the number of people living in poverty. (Indeed, the result could even be an increase in the amount of measured poverty, if the effect is to raise overall household income. This would lead to a rise in average income, and hence to a rise in half average income - the poverty line. More people would then slip below it.)

Poverty needs to be defined and measured in a more human and sophisticated way to capture the essential problem and to clarify the 20-year ambition. That ambition should be to make sure that no child grows up in circumstances where there is too little money to provide for his or her full development. Some elements - such as the need for a dry, warm home and enough to eat - are broadly constant. Others will evolve. Ten years ago nobody regarded the absence of a home computer as an indicator of poverty; within the next ten years, we shall reach the point at which a child who cannot access the Internet from home will be at a severe disadvantage.

4. Ensuring equality of access

Full political and civic equality and an effectively patrolled poverty line would take Britain closer to the ideal of "equal worth", but it would not be enough. For example, many inner-city households, especially single-parent families, live in "food deserts". Supermarkets and good greengrocers are beyond easy reach to those without cars; local corner stores charge high prices and sell little that is fresh and in good condition. For people living in food deserts, a higher income is only part of the answer. They need not just extra cash, but a better retail system. Some means of coaxing Tesco and Sainsbury to set up small "metro" supermarkets in poor housing estates might help as much as an increase in social security benefits. By the same token, the withdrawal of banks and building societies from many inner-city estates has denied many people effective access to financial services, especially credit, on reasonable terms.

These are examples of a more general proposition: that citizenship should carry with it a variety of practical "membership rights" beyond the right to vote, to obtain justice and to receive a minimum income. Equality of access to information, to public services and to effective representation in, say, a workplace dispute - all these things matter, too, alongside access to healthy food and financial services. So does mobility, which is why access to efficient, affordable public transport is an "equality" issue. So is access to information technology.

One danger is that an "information underclass" will develop. People with access may not choose to use it (no law can force people to use a computer, any more than people can be made to eat more carrots and fewer sticky buns), but people without access in any of these areas are at a real disadvantage.

5. Making money matter less

Two of the first four components of the "equal worth" agenda concern money (abolishing group inequalities and ending poverty); the other two do not, at least not directly (political and civic equality and equality of access). The final component takes further the need to create a society that is more equal in human terms, even if it remains unequal in financial terms. At present, one of the most shocking features of our unequal society is that a baby born into a poor home is likely to die significantly younger than a baby born into a prosperous home. Perhaps the most important single long-term aim for public policy is to eliminate the correlation between income and life expectancy by ensuring that everyone has the chance to live a healthy life to the full, wherever they find themselves on the income scale.

This involves making sure that money cannot be used to capture advantages that should be available to all. Obvious examples are education and health. The existence of private provision alongside state schools and the NHS may be regretted, even deplored. But it is not going to end. The real scandal is more specific: in some areas, parents can give their children a decent education only if they pay for it, and some patients can have their ailment treated swiftly only if they go private. In an "equal worth" society, money would not bestow such advantages, because good schools and prompt treatment would be available for all.

More widely, everyone should have the right to live in safe neighbourhoods and to breathe clean air. The hazards of crime and pollution are not only too great; they also tend to afflict the poor more than the rich. And just as personal safety should be available to all, so should nature, outdoor games and open countryside. The "right to roam" should help to promote equality, as should adequate school playing-fields and well-tended public parks.

For too long, Labour's modernisers have shied away from the e-word. As a result they have failed to engage in a debate about the true meaning of equality. In his speech to Labour's conference in Bournemouth, the Prime Minister reopened that debate. The purpose of this essay has been to argue that human equality can and should coexist with liberal capitalism and the new politics, and that "equal worth" is a bold but achievable objective. If that analysis is correct, then the lesson is clear. "True equality" should be the distinctive value and principal goal of progressive politics in the 21st century.

This essay appears as part of a collection, "Equality and the Forces of Conservatism", published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). Available on 0181-986 5488, for £7.50