Wednesday 10 September 2008

Class matters

Of course, Harriet Harman is not reopening a class war (whatever Iain Dale might think) by stating the obvious: that class and family background do too much to determine life chances in Britain today. Nick Robinson has a more sensible analysis of how this fits into Labour's fairness fightback.

The introduction of the new National Equalities Panel, to be headed by John Hills of the LSE, arises from a proposal made from the Fabian Life Chances Commission report Narrowing the Gap, which had a significant impact in bringing the language of equality back into mainstream Labour politics, as Martin Bright noted at the time.

The Fabian Commission, which challenged Tony Blair's refusal to say explicitly that the gap mattered, called on the government

"to set a target to reduce income and wealth inequalities over time where these affect life chances, and to develop and give prominence to monitoring appropriate indicators of income and wealth inequality" .. and to convene a Royal Commission on the distribution of income and wealth, ""whose remit should include reviewing the impact of existing patterns of renumeration and wealth on children's life chances, engaging the public with its deliberations and making proposals focused on improving the life chances of disadvantaged children".

That proposal was adopted by Harriet Harman in her deputy leadership campaign, as she set out in this interview with Andrew Marr, and the result is the equality panel

Of course, Dave Osler is right to argue that the evidence on inequality exists, and that action is needed. The government has quietly redistributed, but in a way which struggles to hold rising inequality back, rather than decisively reverse the trend. But these exercises can help to frame the public agenda (as, for example, the Wanless review did on health spending). And the robust evidence which Hills will produce could prove particularly important at a time when politicians of all parties talk about stalling social mobility and express concerns about inequality and child poverty, and yet produce policies which push in the opposite direction, on inheritance tax or abolishing the child trust fund.

So Harman's speech is a decent step in the right direction, especially since Labour has found it so difficult to find the language to talk about class inequalities. An issue covered in depth by this summer's Fabian Review, which attempted to provide a grown-up guide to the politics of class, and an antidote to the Crewe by-election campaign.

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