One of the things that attracted so many in Labour to Ed Miliband's leadership campaign was his commitment to reduce inequality. Confronted by the widening gap between rich and poor, Tony Blair would glibly remark that he didn’t go into politics "to make sure that David Beckham earns less money". Gordon Brown was less intensely relaxed about the "filthy rich" but doubted whether it was possible to significantly reduce inequality in a country that he continued to view as conservative.
Miliband, by contrast, recognised that progressive governments have both a moral and an economic duty to do so. And for him, as Kant put it, ought implied can. As he wrote in a piece for the New Statesman in August 2010, "We, politicians and the public, have to decide what kind of society we want to live in, and whether the difficult task of greater equality is worth the candle. It is - and it is at the very heart of why we need to move on from New Labour. During our years in power, we didn't do enough to stop the gap between rich and poor getting wider. If you really believe in a society where there is social mobility, where we look after each other, where we build social solidarity, then the gap matters."
But as Miliband has focused on developing his "retail offer" to voters, in the form of policies such as the energy price freeze and a mass housebuilding programme, there are some in Labour who feel this overarching message has been lost. While the theme of inequality has risen to prominence in such unlikely places as Davos, it has been surprisingly absent from Miliband's recent speeches. But in his Hugo Young lecture tonight he will act to correct this omission.
When Miliband ran for the leadership in 2010, his commitment to reduce inequality was viewed as a radical challenge to the Westminster consensus. But as he will rightly note this evening, "nationally and internationally, this is changing". He will cite Barack Obama, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, the Pope, and Conservatives David Skelton and Jesse Norman as examples of political figures, from the left and the right, who have recognised the necessity of building a more equal society. "Tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics," he will declare. Here's the key extract:
Many people across every walk of life in Britain – politics, charity and business – now openly say they believe that inequality is deeply damaging. Internationally too, political and civic leaders are talking about inequality in a way that they haven’t for generations.
At the end of last month, President Obama put it right at the heart of his agenda for government. A few months before that the Democratic candidate for Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, was elected with precisely the same message. We now have a Pope who says the same.
And that’s because people the world over are beginning to recognise some fundamental facts again. That it offends people’s basic sense of fairness when the gaps between those at the top and everyone else just keep getting bigger regardless of contribution. That it holds our economies back when the wages of the majority are squeezed and it weakens our societies when the gaps between the rungs on the ladder of opportunity get wider and wider. And that our nations are less likely to succeed when they lack that vital sense of common life, as they always must when the very richest live in one world and everyone else a very different one.
I believe that these insights are at the heart of a new wave of progressive politics. And will be for years to come. Indeed, not just left of centre politics. Intelligent Conservatives from David Skelton outside Westminster to Jesse Norman inside recognise the importance of inequality as well.
I believe that the public want to know we get it; we understand the depths of the cost of living crisis they face. And we can’t go on with countries where the gap between those at the top and everyone else just gets bigger and bigger. Tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics.
When Miliband has spoken about inequality in the past he has usually been referring to income and opportunity. An important shift tonight will be to widen his focus to include inequalities of power. It is a recognition that some of the greatest disparities between groups cannot simply be plotted on a decile graph. Too often, in their contact with public services, individuals are denied the opportunity to shape their own lives. It is this Blue Labour insight that lies behind Miliband's promise of radical devolution (as I wrote this morning) and a revolution in transparency and accountability.
As he will say, citing Michael Young's Small Man, Big World and Saul Alinksy, the father of modern community organising, "I care about inequality of income and opportunity. But I care about something else as well. Inequalities of power. Everyone - not just those at the top - should have the chance to shape their own lives. I meet as many people frustrated by the unresponsive state as the untamed market: the housing case not dealt with, the special educational needs situation unresolved, the problems on the estate unaddressed. And the causes of the frustrations are often the same in the private and public sector: unaccountable power with the individual left powerless to act against it. So just as it is One Nation Labour’s cause to tackle unaccountable power in the private sector, so too in the public sector."
In the form of a commitment to tackle inequality, in all its forms, Miliband has come the closest yet to articulating what will be Labour's defining mission in government. When David Cameron delivered the same lecture in 2009, he too vowed to reduce poverty and inequality (albeit through conservative means), declaring: "What I have spoken about today combines optimism about the potential for social renewal with realism about the role of the state in fighting poverty and inequality. If we stick the course and change this country then we will have a national life expanded with meaning and mutual responsibility. We will feel it in the strength of our relationships - the civility and courtesy we show to each other."
But more recently, under the tutelage of Lynton Crosby, he has retreated to a narrow, sour agenda characterised by ever-more dogmatic policies on welfare and immigration. The themes of inequality and poverty now rarely, if ever, appear in his speeches. It is another reminder of why the next election will be defined by the kind of big choices that have for so long been absent from British politics.