From top to bottom

It is time for the left to rediscover one of its core values

The Labour Party's belief in equality was once taken as axiomatic. After nearly a decade in government, new Labour's feelings on the subject are ambivalent and the figures are ambiguous. The incomes of the poorest fifth of the population have risen by 21 per cent since 1997, according to the Households Below Average Income analysis by the Department for Work and Pensions, while those of the richest fifth have increased by 17 per cent. But the top fifth still enjoys incomes almost four times higher than those obtained by the bottom fifth.

So where, apart from the top end of the EU inequality league, does this leave us? Liberty and fraternity hold self-evident value, but the value of equality has become elusive. The Chancellor's concern to alleviate the lot of the poorest is consistent with a functional view of inequality, as an indicator of how many are struggling to meet basic needs. Once they are "lifted out of poverty", their position relative to the rest of society is no longer a problem. As long as the income of the poorest is adequate in absolute terms, it does not matter how many times more the richest are paid. Indeed, their gain may be welcomed as a sign that they are realising their potential.

Critics object that exaggerated rewards make a mockery of equality of opportunity by creat-ing barriers of capital - financial and social - that restrict admission to many parts of the elite. This argument reasserts the values of postwar social democracy, with its confidence that the broad mass of people are not so limited in potential as to make a mockery of equality of worth. It also reminds us that equality is the distinguishing value of the left. People who talk about "the left" while overlooking equality are actually talking about colourful varieties of liberalism.

Social democracy saw society as a whole. Its project was not simply to alleviate poverty, but to promote solidarity. Such ideas persist in the widespread feeling that outrageous fortunes are grotesque and inequalities mar the quality of social relations. What this intuition lacks in ideological currency it more than makes up for in empirical evidence. As Richard Wilkinson records in his book The Impact of Inequality, study after study has found an association between income inequalities and murder rates. Studies of Whitehall civil servants have found a steady gradient of mortality in which professional-grade staff are twice and the lowest grades three times as likely to die as the most senior ranks. This is an effect of hierarchy, not poverty or smoking or diet.

The implication of such findings is that re ducing inequalities would make individuals healthier and happier. The evidence suggests that equality is indeed a social good, like liberty and fraternity. Like liberty, it cannot be absolute, but is fundamental to the creation of a good society. It's not just a matter of opportunity, or worth, or even outcome. It's more important than that.