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Debating equality at the Fabian conference

So, despite all the media frenzy about “class war” in response to a few jibes by Brown at PMQs, the government looks set to fight the next election on familiar Mandelsonian territory.
Guy Aitchison
18 January 2010

So, despite all the media frenzy about “class war” in response to a few jibes by Brown at PMQs, the government looks set to fight the next election on familiar Mandelsonian territory. But there remains widespread opposition to this strategy in the grassroots of the party, as I discovered at the Fabian Society New Year conference on Saturday.

In his opening speech to the conference Brown said Labour was the party of “middle class families” who want a society in which they can meet their aspirations for a bigger house, a new car and holidays abroad.

Neal Lawson, of Compass, rejected this vision of “meritocracy” - a term coined by Michael Young to describe a dystopia in which people stand or fall on their own –at a panel debate on “Equality of What?”. Brown’s emphasis on consumption and aspiration sounds like the politics of yesterday, he said, from a time before the crash and before we knew about the environmental disaster we face. Labour’s focus for the next election should instead be on creating an egalitarian society; on promoting new forms of aspiration, more spare time and community activity.

Oxford philosopher and Next Left blogger, Stuart White, agreed. Brown’s vision of a “skills-based meritocracy” has been central to New Labour since its inception, yet inequality of wealth and income have gone up. White sketched out what an alternative egalitarian vision would look like. Those of us who reject meritocracy do not necessarily demand total equality of outcome, he said. We want what philosophers call “luck egalitarianism”; a society in which inequalities that are as a result of luck, of accident of birth, should be rectified, but not those that are due to individual choices.

John Denham, Minister for Communities and Local Government, joked that he’d never heard of “luck egalitarianism” but liked the sound of it. He agreed that the case for greater equality was strong, name checking The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. 

The difficulty which he kept returning to is that not everything that increases inequality is seen as “fair”. There still needs to be a discussion about what’s fair to reduce inequality if the party is to carry the country with it. Many people support a move towards greater equality of opportunity, but they’re not totally convinced of the case for higher taxes to lift the lot of those lower down the ladder.

If there’s a reason for this, said Lawson, it’s that the party has not used its twelve years in power to promote the cause of equality or build the organisational capacity to support it. Yes, be pragmatic and gradualist, he said, but in the end what is needed is long-term effort to build support for a far-reaching view of egalitarianism: “Sweden wasn’t built in one or two Parliaments”.

Jenni Russell, of the Guardian, came at the question from a personal angle. Even though Denham is right to say that some inequalities have been reduced, people don’t think Labour has delivered as all the time it was redistributing it was silent about what it was trying to achieve. There needs to be a new narrative about why equality is a desirable thing, she said, since contrary to the view of many on the left, rising inequality makes people less favourable to policies aimed at equality, not more so, as people are more afraid of losing their place and desperate to hold onto the gains they have. The case for greater equality is intellectually strong but on a personal level it needs to be made more desirable to people worried about their place in society.

Denham attempted to reassure the audience that the government would indeed be fighting the next election on a platform of greater equality. He was reasonably impressive in the way he engaged with the arguments though it’s fair to say that the examples he offered as proof of the government’s commitment to greater fairness - Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill and a slightly tougher regime on bankers’ bonuses - was hardly what the conference hoped for to inspire them towards a fourth term.

But there were no such "big ideas" at a conference which over all lacked any real vitality. I was left with the impression of a party without the strength of its convictions and meekly resigned to fighting the next election on the “centre” ground under a leadership rooted in past assumptions about what kind of politics and society is both desirable and possible in the 21st century. 

Update: Stuart White has posted his comments on why meritocracy is not enough at Next Left.

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