Inequality Redux: Conclusion

Tony PayneThis post concludes the series of posts written over the past couple of months by SPERI staff on the different dimensions of inequality that can be identified in the contemporary political economy of Britain.  It notes that inequality has not, however, taken centre-stage in the current British general election campaign.  It asks why the Labour Party in particular has not focused on the issue, given its historical engagement with the concept of equality, and explores some of the reasons why it remains nervous about doing so.  The post ends by asking whether rising inequality has now also begun to undermine the capacity of British politics to address the many problems that it generates.

Inequality is back, wrote Colin Hay in the Introduction to this series, before going on to note that, of course, not only had it never gone away but that it has been accelerating since the 1980s, has worsened again markedly since the great financial crisis and recession and, thanks to the adoption of austerity policies, was bound to deepen still further into the future.  In the circumstances, Inequality Redux, the latter adjective simply meaning ‘restored’ or ‘brought back’, may perhaps have been too mild a title for this series of posts.

Nevertheless, the cumulative story told has surely been an important one to have highlighted, especially given the timing and context of the posts: namely, contemporary Britain in the midst of a long and ongoing election campaign.  In the various posts we’ve seen inequality unpicked successively in relation to: the labour market, basic income, labour exploitation, benefits, welfare, gender, assets, housing and, most recently, the very operation of the state.  We’ve described and analysed the ‘lived experience’ of inequality undergone by many of our fellow citizens and voters (hoping here that the most disadvantaged are indeed registered to vote on May 7).

Yet the reality is that SPERI’s attempt to draw attention to the complex political economy of inequality has not found a loud enough echo in the election campaign.  Indeed, to adapt Sherlock Holmes, it has been the dog that didn’t really bark.  Why is that?  This concluding post will attempt to offer at least the beginning of an explanation and, in so doing, will open up the deeply worrying thought that inequality has also got to our politics and rendered the British political system at best ill-placed and at worst incapable of responding to the damage to society which growing inequality unavoidably entails.

I shall focus on the Labour Party.  This may be unfair, because an election is a unique moment when all the political parties really ‘are in it together’ in respect of having a responsibility to chart ways forward for the country.  I know too, not least because Craig Berry reminded us in his post last week, that the right now seeks to embrace the cause of inequality.  But, to be honest, I can’t take that claim very seriously: it’s chutzpah of the highest order.  The Conservative Party exists fundamentally to conserve the existing power structure; the Liberals exist, or should exist, to promote the greater freedom of individuals; Scottish Nationalists seek, above all, an independent Scotland; UKIP an (albeit mythical) restored and autonomous United Kingdom (really England); the Greens a genuinely sustainable economic and social order, and so on.  By contrast, the reality surely is that, in Britain, if inequality is the issue that bothers you, it is Labour in the main to which you are most likely to look for redress.

The reason for saying this is simple.  Historically, the concept of equality has been in Labour’s ideological blood from its earliest beginnings as a political party.  For anyone who doesn’t know, or has forgotten, this history, it is engagingly summarised by Caroline Daniel in a collection of essays produced by IPPR in 1997.  As she shows, the Party’s engagement with equality can be said to start with George Bernard Shaw, run through to R.H. Tawney and flower most eloquently in Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, published in 1956 (and, incidentally, a book that much affected me when I first read it as a teenager in the 1960s).  Since Crosland, the argument for making equality the organising crusade for Labour has been raised persistently by Roy Hattersley and, most recently, by Peter Hain.  But Crosland remains the classic source of inspiration and is worth quoting at length.  He wrote in that highly influential book:

Socialism, in our view, was basically about equality.  By equality, we meant more than a meritocratic society of equal opportunities in which the greatest rewards would go to those with the most fortunate endowments and family background; we adopted the ‘strong’ definition of equality – what [John] Rawls subsequently called the ‘democratic’ as opposed to ‘liberal’ conception.  We also meant more than a simple (not that it has proved simple in practice) redistribution of income.  We wanted a wider social equality embracing also the distribution of property, the educational system, social-class relationships, power and privilege in industry – indeed all that was enshrined in the age-old socialist dream of a more ‘classless society’.

Personally, I’ve always translated that ‘wider social equality’ into the notion of a fundamental equality of respect in which society accepts that its successful functioning requires as much the care worker as the brain surgeon, the dustman as well as the entrepreneur.  As I’ve said, this is all in Labour’s blood, although I concede that, if you came to maturity in the 1980s and don’t read much, you could (just about) be forgiven for not realising.

Where, then, does Labour stand on equality and inequality at this moment in this election?  Well, in case you missed it, Ed Miliband said quite explicitly in the town hall session that followed his grilling by Paxman a week or so ago that Britain today is ‘too unequal’, adding that New Labour was ‘too relaxed about inequality’.  I heard it with my own ears.  Yet, for all the force of his observation, addressing inequality has not been developed into a cri de coeur that coheres and rallies the Labour campaign.  Inequality has been mentioned, and many of Labour’s actual policy proposals, if implemented, would ameliorate some of the worst effects.  But, nevertheless, this dog has not barked loudly and persistently.

Why not?  Possible answers are either that Miliband does not really believe what he said and was just touching base in his remark with a favoured mantra of the left, or that he is just too weak and ineffectual to make this cause central to the pitch of the party he leads.  We are all entitled to our views of Miliband, but I don’t happen to think either of the above arguments is true.  I think Miliband is quite serious about tackling inequality, but that he is nervous about raising this argument and making it the centrepiece of his campaign.  What’s more, he might be right to be nervous.  He is getting the reports from Labour’s focus groups and the party’s private polling; I am not.

What if the picture of the British electorate that is being reported to him is that of a people that says and believes contradictory things at the same time?  In other words, we are upset by inequality and perhaps our own position in the economic and social order, but we also prefer what are essentially individual, rather than collective, routes forward out of the inequality that affects us.  Put differently again, what if, over the course of the last 30-35 years, we have all become more ‘neoliberalised’ in our heads, in our attitudes, emotions and core values, than we realise or are willing to admit?  What if Miliband’s advisers are telling him to be watchful of embracing inequality too strongly as a campaigning rhetoric for fear that many of us will, apparently, embrace the talk, but then walk in the secrecy of the ballot box towards tax cuts, the right to buy housing association property cheaply and unfunded promises about finding massive amounts of money to spend on the NHS?

Something of this argument is made by Philip Mirowski in his brilliant book on the crisis called Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown.  He uses theories of cognitive dissonance to argue that neoliberalism has become a ‘Theory of Everything’, providing a revolutionary account of self, knowledge, information, markets and government, and has thus rendered itself secure from being falsified by ‘anything as trifling as data from the “real” economy’.

For what it’s worth, I find his proposition plausible but also somewhat exaggerated, because, as I have argued previously on SPERI Comment, there is also considerable countervailing evidence in Britain, as well as more obviously in places like Greece, Spain, Argentina, that more and more people are rebelling in various ways against the practice of neoliberalism.  The point here is that inequality is the key battle-ground in this fight for the future and the great worry is that its entrenchment in countries like Britain has already significantly weakened the capacity of politicians, like Ed Miliband perhaps, who would like in their hearts to address it directly.

In effect, what I am suggesting is that the rich and their allies may have already captured too much of the political process for our collective good as citizens.  This is the sense in which inequality might already have got to our politics, as well as all the other aspects of society on which our series of posts has focused.