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17 December 2020

There’s not much that’s new about Liz Truss’s new approach to equality issues

Strip away the applause lines on “the left” and it’s not clear what the substantive shift proclaimed by the International Trade Secretary is.

By Stephen Bush

A confession: I watched Liz Truss’s speech on the Conservative government’s new approach to equalities, I have reread the text three times, but I am no closer to understanding her speech or what the Conservative government’s new approach to equalities is meant to be.

This is surprising, because usually the International Trade Secretary’s speeches are among the easiest to write about in that they have clear, focused ideological arguments and therefore the policy conclusions follow cleanly and clearly from the rest of the speech. But this was not the case here. Truss opened with what sounded like a fairly old-fashioned argument for intersectionality: that the debate about equalities should focus not just on gender but on a swathe of issues: “affording a home, getting to work, going out safely at night, ending discrimination in our offices, factories and shop floors”.

There’s nothing to object to in that argument. In many ways, it’s common sense: I’m mixed race, but I also have the huge advantages of being middle class. I grew up poor, but in a global city with huge amounts of free culture, subsidised youth opportunities and any number of advantages that someone whose parents earned £40,000 each in a small town would not have had.

[see also: How schools can play a positive role in promoting racial equality]

But it is unclear to me why, exactly, this is a new approach and how it differs from that of other Conservative governments since 2010. While the Tory governments of David Cameron, May or Boris Johnson did not put the Equality Act into law, none have moved to repeal or replace it, or articulated an objection to it that would stand if they had not unpicked the act’s requirement to treat class and income as among its protected characteristics. 

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This is, again, in and of itself, unobjectionable: there are large areas of public policy where pretty much all political parties agree on ends and argue on means, or agree on ends and agree that the means are fiendishly difficult, or agree on ends but disagree about how to get there. Climate change, for example, is one. Fighting crime is another. I see no particular reason why equalities should not be a third – ultimately, that both major parties are offering some version of intersectionality is not necessarily a bad thing. It might just reflect that, broadly, an intersectional approach is the common-sense solution that anyone who examines the problem reaches for.

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There are huge ideological divisions about how you fight crime or tackle climate change, and there may be huge ideological divisions about how you tackle equalities issues. However, that Truss chose the 2010 Academies Act, a continuation rather than a repudiation of New Labour’s education agenda, as an illustrative example of her approach suggests this issue isn’t really the subject of a clean Labour-Conservative divide, but rather divides within them.

[see also: Is the UK in the clutches of a culture war?]

The problem with that reading, however, is that Truss’s speech was also peppered with side-swipes at “the left” and its supposed orthodoxies on diversity. The speech’s most substantial policy shift – previous Conservative objectives of achieving greater boardroom diversity, while criticised as preoccupations of “the left” by Truss, remain government policy – concerns the scrapping of unconscious bias training in the civil service, introduced by David Cameron, a Conservative, in 2015. The evidence is that unconscious bias training does not work, and when Keir Starmer announced he would undertake it after a gaffe, he was criticised from both his left and his right. Scrapping something that has been tried and found wanting is good, but it is not, bluntly, the stuff of which huge political divides are made.

The most striking piece of rhetoric was on trans rights, a similarly divisive issue on both the left and the right. The biggest and most influential advocate of reforming the Gender Recognition Act in parliament has not been Keir Starmer, who has kept a low profile on the subject in general, but former Conservative cabinet minister Maria Miller in her capacity as chair of the women and equalities select committee. When newspaper reports suggested that a broader change was afoot on trans issues, the loudest critics came from the Tory side and they are, broadly, the most important block on the Conservative government on this issue at the present time.

The speech speaks to the biggest problem with some Tories’ desire to have a “war on the woke”: the United Kingdom just isn’t that divided on most cultural issues and the divides that exist do not map cleanly onto the current electoral coalitions of either parties.

There is a little in the speech about the need to be “evidence-led”. There is a huge amount of evidence from Theresa May’s time as prime minister, and until the government’s commission on inequality completes its work it will be hard to assess what this evidence means in practice: the government’s intention is that the commission will be the foundation of everything it does and says on this issue, but my suspicion remains that it will be closer to the stuff that successive governments have tried and that both parties, in general, support once you strip away the rhetoric and look at the substance.

I suspect there’s a speech that Truss could have given that would have been quite good and quite divisive. It would have talked explicitly about how markets are the best tool to fight inequality, and that trying to buck them is a fool’s errand. It would, in short, have been a return to the economic positions that until recently the Conservatives would loudly and clearly articulate, and that now are only half-glimpsed in speeches that cast around for a culture war, for want of anything particularly significant to say.

[see also: Why some Conservatives are nervous about making the next election a culture war]