The consumer should not be sovereign

It's that time in a government's life again: lost its way . . . stands at a crossroads . . . needs to reassert its ends . . . find sense of purpose . . . vision . . . renewal . . . inspire supporters . . . tell a story . . . glad, confident morning once more. Even Margaret Thatcher seemed briefly to lose her momentum early in her second term before recovering and pressing on to wreck the state school system, bring the masses on to the streets in protest against the poll tax, and poison our relations with the rest of Europe. Prime ministers with a glint in the eye are dangerous. After about seven years in office, they start to pursue their pet schemes as though they had been muttering for years in the corner of the saloon bar "Now if I were prime minister . . . " and had suddenly woken up to realise they were actually in charge and there was nobody to stop them. The idea that Tony Blair is suddenly going to change his ways after all this time - and see the merits of the public sector, trade unions, fair taxation, stiff regulation and not sucking up to the White House - is preposterous. If Labour wants a fresh vision as opposed to just another term in office, it will have to get itself a new leader.

Blairism and the Third Way, it is now clear, were dead ends for the left. They were modifications of Thatcherism to make it more palatable to social democrats. What was needed was a modification of social democracy to update it and make it more palatable to the wider public, which was never wholly seduced by neoliberalism. The manifesto for the new group Compass - drafted by an impeccably social democratic panel that includes the head of Catalyst, the new, union-backed think-tank, as well as the head of Mr Blair's favourite, the IPPR - puts its finger on the problem. "Too often, new Labour seems happier on the side of the private sector and at war with public service ethos and public sector workers." Mr Blair insists that while the NHS and state schools, for example, should remain free at the point of delivery, their users will expect to be treated as consumers just as they would by their local Chinese restaurant. But as Compass points out: "The language of consumer choice risks [people] treating public services like a supermarket, seeking compensation when anything goes wrong, while taking responsibility in terms of co-production for less and less."

This is new Labour's most profound failure: it has not restored faith in the public realm or, more generally, in collective solutions. Its obsessive managerialism, its belief in the instant gratification of consumer preferences, its insistence that everything must work efficiently (even if it doesn't, in fact, usually work at all) blinds it to broader values such as social solidarity and co-operation. Trade unions, for example, may sometimes contribute to economic efficiency, as wiser employers recognise, but that is not their main purpose, which is to give collective expression to working people's interests and views. In so doing, they may sometimes inconvenience consumers or - heaven forfend - shave a fraction of a percentage point off economic growth. That is not a reason for keeping unions weak or treating them as though they were threats to public safety. Nor should the consumer be treated as sovereign. The consumer is usually also a producer, a citizen and a member of a family. These other roles in life, and the rights and responsibilities they carry, should be equally if not more important.

Whether or not Margaret Thatcher ever said that there is no such thing as society, the attitude expressed by that phrase was her legacy to Britain, and it is one that a social dem- ocratic government has to confront. Britain has lost a sense of the public good, most notably on transport and the environment. Significantly, the example that Compass picks out of how we can "escape the consumption treadmill" is the congestion charging scheme in London - admittedly made possible by Labour legislation, but actually introduced by a mayor who was forced out of the party.

Instead of extending social, non-commercial values, new Labour has encouraged the market further to permeate the public sector. For example, its latest "payment by results" proposals for the NHS - which are far more significant than those for foundation hospitals - would allow private centres to sell medical diagnosis and treatment services to primary care trusts if they can convince the trusts that they offer better quality. The focus would then be on making and enforcing contractual arrangements with private firms, not on improving NHS staff and facilities. The public sector thus increasingly becomes a mediator between consumers and the private sector, not an entity in its own right, with its own mission and its own values.

Let good folk beat their children

One can always rely on the Liberal Democrat conference to offer original and surprising ideas - rather as one used to rely on Monty Python's Flying Circus. This year, Lembit Opik MP, speaking at a fringe meeting, exceeded expectations. Good drivers with a sound safety record should be allowed to drive at 90mph instead of the usual 70mph limit, he proposed. By thus rewarding good behaviour as well as punishing bad, a new approach to politics would be pioneered. Indeed, yes. Responsible parents who read bedtime stories and organise family visits to historic homes could be allowed to beat their children. Employers who pay full corporation tax could be permitted to sack workers instantly. Burglars who give away a proportion of their loot to charity could be excused prosecution. Mr Opik says he is not putting his idea up for consideration as official party policy. He is surely too modest.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Nepotism: is it back?

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.