Sir, I have much respect for Roy Hattersley’s role in championing equality as Labour’s animating mission, a view I strongly share. But he bases his attack on John Denham on the caricatured claim that the Communities Secretary is proposing to ditch the idea of equality (“If equality is dead, what is the point of Labour?”, Opinion, July 3).
Yet Denham said that “a rejection of inequality — both absolute, relative and of opportunity — is absolutely core to who we are”. There are differences between Hattersley and Denham but they are not about whether or not to be for a fairer and more equal society. The issue is rather what that means and how to try to get there. Indeed, with all main parties now claiming to support the principle of equality, this ought to become a live debate across the political spectrum.
Denham was responding to Fabian Society research, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which digs into public attitudes as they are. This was analysis, rather than advocacy. The evidence will be used by campaigners, from many perspectives, both to inform arguments that can go with the grain of public values and to identify attitudes that they would need to challenge and shift. There is much in the report that shows how more vocal arguments for greater equality could resonate much more widely than conventional wisdom suggests. Denham stressed how strongly runaway inequality at the top, with pay differentials within companies of 500:1 and more, has offended public norms of merit, fair rewards and fair rules too: something politicians have ignored until recently.
I am surprised that Hattersley argues that nuance in democratic politics always turns into capitulation. We all combine and trade off ideas about need, merit, contribution and entitlement when we think about different aspects of fairness and equality. Attlee and Beveridge recognised that. A social democratic revival that reflected this could prove the equality agenda we need.
General Secretary, Fabian Society
This is not to diminish where there are real differences between Hattersley and Denham over the meaning of fairness, whether it is possible for equality and fairness to collide, and how to resolve the clash if they do.
Both sides of the debate have a strong interest in how we build strong coalitions to make reducing inequality possible. There was a good comment in an earlier thread from Don Paskino, who wrote "I think one of the things which the reaction to Denham's comments shows is that those of us who want to shift the way that we argue for equality need to be very careful in explaining how and why. While the 'traditional egalitarians' aren't a majority, there is no way of building a majority without their enthusiastic support, and they mustn't be taken for granted". That is important advice, with messages for both sides.
One of the worst features of the New Labour era was a strong tendency - by New Labour itself, and by its critics - to offer mutual caricatures in internal debates, rather than attempting a substantive engagement over ideas. Any social democratic revival needs to avoid doing this.
As Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Hattersley showed a good deal of interest in trying to get Labour to debate its values and principles, and not simply issues of policy. I am not sure anybody has done so since, and this may be a good part of the problem.
As part of this Hattersley wrote a book 'Choose Freedom', which was a decent attempt, particularly given the constraints on a very senior serving frontbencher, to popularise in general politics the ideas of John Rawls, Tawney and Crosland, rooting social democratic politics in a positive conception of liberty.
Hattersley's central claim, as suggested in the title, is that "what we stand for is freedom ... that is the ultimate objective of socialism"
There is certainly a strong element of needs-based egalitarianism in all three thinkers, notably with Rawls' proposal that differences are legitimate if in the interests of the worst off.
But these can not be purely needs-based accounts since their foundation is that they are arguments about the fair and equal distribution of autonomy.
The case is that greater equality is required for freedom to be substantive.
These attractive 'equality of autonomy' accounts must have a strong foundation in the distribution of the capacity for autonomy, as stressed by Amartya Sen.
But it must follow that if the fair distribution of substantive freedom can be achieved, that some differences will and must legitimately result from fairly made choices in how it is used, individually and collectively. Otherwise, the claim to be promoting autonomy looks a rather arid and thin one.
Hence two important passages which Hattersley has done a good deal to promote over many years.
Firstly, Tawney's rejection of the idea that equality means uniformity, and his claim that differences would flourish if the opportunity to fulfil human potential was spread around:
"While natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation. Indeed, individual differences are more likely to ripen and find expression if social inequalities are diminished."
Secondly, Crosland's claim with which Hattersley ends his book for a pro-freedom politics of equality:
"Socialism is about the pursuit of equality and the protection of freedom - in the knowledge that until we are truly equal we will not be truly free".