Wednesday 24 September 2008

'Fairness' is not enough

Gordon Brown was absolutely right to make 'fairness' the central theme of his conference speech. Labour urgently needs to recapture its idealism about social justice. This is the way, first, for those of us in the party to refire our enthusiasm, rebuild our self-confidence and reconnect with core supporters. And, second, it challenges the wider public perception that Labour is exhausted, cynical and so it is 'time for a change'.

But there is a problem with the idea of 'fairness'. Everyone believes in it. Yet they don't all mean the same thing. Channel 4 News did some interviews with floating voters who had watched the speech. One man said that of course he believed in fairness. But fairness meant doing something about the tax burden on 'Middle England'. In particular, it meant abolishing inheritance tax.

So its not enough to talk about fairness. Labour needs to talk about its distinctive understanding of fairness. Of course, Brown did some of this in his speech. He linked fairness to ending child poverty, freer health-care (the move on prescription charges), and so on. But Labour needs to do a lot more of this - and do it in a different way - than it has in the past. Above all, Labour needs to link fairness more explicitly with the 'E word': equality.

Labour should first put the idea of 'equal life chances' centre-stage. It is an affront to human dignity that - to use an image that Tony Blair once used - two children born at the same time in the same hospital ward can end up with such profoundly unequal prospects because of the social class of the parents who take them home. Labour has done a lot of admirable work on this problem since 1997 - Sure Start, progress on reducing child poverty, the Child Trust Fund. The party should boast about what it has done and at the same time launch a public campaign for further, urgently needed measures. It should take a principled stand against suggested tax changes, such the Conservative proposals for more cuts to inheritance tax, which will widen inequality in life-chances - and it should say that this is why it opposes such cuts.

Second, Labour needs to start questioning inequalities in market rewards. Hardly anyone thinks that we should all have the same income. But a lot of inequalities in reward are undeserved. Labour needs to have the confidence to say this. The emerging criticism and review of City bonuses could be a tentative start in this direction. But the argument needs to be pressed far more widely.

Labour's decline from a position of parity with the Conservatives to being 20% or more behind in the polls started almost a year ago when the government caved in to the Conservative assault on inheritance tax. Only if it regains the courage of its convictions, can Labour haul itself back up.

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