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  1. Politics
8 December 2015

What Tristram Hunt got wrong

Because the Labour way is not to stand back from afar and decide what’s good for people.  The purpose of our party is to give people a chance to speak for themselves.

By Alison McGovern

Above and beyond any other pop song, my time in Westminster politics so far has often has felt like Pulp’s Common People is the soundtrack. 

How to explain this? Well, as I’ve admitted before, I’ve at times felt like an outsider in a more privileged world.  Not to say that I am actually an outsider. I’m not. But rather that I’m aware that Parliament has a special way of intimidating the uninitiated.

David Cameron’s documented attraction to old Etonians when handing out jobs in his Government has been an especially disappointing example of how traditional privilege will just not go away. In Westminster, there exists a guild of those already with a head start because they understand how to operate there.

And this means that the culture, experiences, and ambitions of people outside this guild can be a bit of a mystery to those on the inside. Reading Tristram Hunt’s speech on inequality, not for the first time, Jarvis Cocker came to mind.

There are three reasons why, though he says much that is correct, I disagree somewhat with Tristram’s speech to the Fabian Society. Firstly, because I wish he had taken this opportunity to say that the next great Labour leader could truly come from any part of our country, and section of our society, have any ethnicity, disability, sexuality, religion or gender, and to distance himself from the one per cent nonsense when he clearly believes the opposite of what was reported and has always been a champion of equality.

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But secondly, the real problem with what Tristram says is that it sounds too much like we are analysts or examiners of people’s lives, rather than neighbours, friends, or part of one community. I worry that, at times, we in politics risk sounding like sociologists or cultural theorists describing inequality, not participants in Britain’s social and cultural life.

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Because the Labour way is not to stand back from afar and decide what’s good for people.  The purpose of our party is to give people a chance to speak for themselves.

Our job is to listen first, offer solutions after. We cannot afford for Labour politics to become a hangout for those who are so far away from the life experiences of most British people they seem as though they are a tourist in a supermarket.

And we definitely cannot afford for people to lose faith in Labour’s ability to make real their hopes and aspirations because they are locked out by the privileged few. Barbara Ellen – also on about the politics of Common People – wrote recently that this risks ‘an increasingly polarised one-note cultural landscape’.

I know exactly what she means. 

In the political discussion about poverty, much is said about the role of character and aspiration.

But not nearly enough about the impact on your aspirations if you happen to grow up skint.

Because we now have another generation growing up under the Tories, this is a sorry tale that must be told once more.  There are young people out there feeling the rough side of this incompetent and careless government. People like Jade, for example.

Of course wealth inequality matters, as Tristram says. But surely our recent debate about the future of tax credits shows that security of family incomes is a problem that’s not gone away.

And for that reason, whilst he’s correct to mention collective bargaining, improving the organising capacity of trade unions as a whole should be much higher up the list.  Real empowerment on pay – especially in relation the lowest paid, younger workers, and people who have a higher chance of being out of work, such as people with disabilities – should be our focus. 

To give one example, national politics with its myriad debates and commissions has, by and large, failed the low paid, high skilled social care work force. But meanwhile, Unison listened to those working in care themselves, and created the Ethical Care Charter that describes the terms and conditions that public commissioners should require, and have worked with workplace reps and Labour councillors to get councils to sign up. 

This is the difference between thinking that policy solutions are primarily intellectual challenges, or believing that they can also be tackled as practical problems first, and that low paid workers ought to be considered experts by experience.

Finally, the third problem I have with Tristram’s speech is his reason that those who are not poor should care about inequality. He says it is about instrumental value, and therefore that we should all care about it because ending poverty and inequality it is – in practical terms –  good for us all. 

I don’t buy it. Instrumental reasons are, in the end, not good enough.  They are insufficient and contingent on knowledge and interpretation of data sets that I don’t believe will persuade the unpersuadable.

And, the political problem with this is that it accepts a separation between the needs and hopes of those with less from those who already have more. It supposes that the only reasons for political action that appeal to us are self-interested.

But to quote Liz Kendall, we are labour because we believe in solidarity. We believe in the intrinsic value of standing together, whatever the instrumental concerns.

And so most people do as well.  They meet another person and all things being equal want them to have a decent, dignified life, alongside everyone else.  You don’t need to create a tortuous explanation as to why inequality is bad based on instrumental facts about the other consequences of inequality on crime, health or whatever.  You just need to know that most people don’t see rough sleepers on their way to work without feeling like our country’s gone wrong somewhere.

You just need to believe that most British people have the uncomplicated desire to be surrounded by people who have a proper chance of happiness.

That’s all.  And that’s all most people want.