The session on 'Equality of what?' at the Fabian New Year Conference, 'Causes to Fight For', always promised to be interesting.
It was made all the more so by Gordon Brown's speech to the conference in the morning in which he set out some of the ideas which will shape Labour's manifesto for the upcoming election. My opening comments on the afternoon panel entered some reservations about this latest effort to define Labour's vision for the future. I report them, with a little polishing and elaboration, here....
In his article in The Guardian and speech to the Fabian conference, Gordon Brown has set out a commitment to create a skill-based meritocracy. Making Britain an incrementally more meritocratic society, based on a wider, more equal distribution of skills is, of course, a worthy goal. It is certainly better than making Britain incrementally less meritocratic as the Conservatives are likely to do. However, as a statement of Labour's vision, I have three reservations.
First, we have been hearing this sort of thing for a very long time.
Commitment to a skill-based meritocracy, as the cornerstone of an egalitarian strategy, has been central to Labour thinking and policy-making since the mid-1990s. It is there in Gordon Brown's discussion of a new 'politics of potential' from the early/mid 1990s. Its there in the final report of the Commission on Social Justice. It is there in Tony Giddens's The Third Way.
However, while Labour has been acting on this idea since 1997, income inequality is higher now than when Labour came to power and wealth inequality has also (probably) increased. So what, exactly, is Labour going to do differently, under this not so new meritocratic agenda, that will lead to greater success in these areas?
Second, does Labour really believe in a 'genuine meritocracy'? Meritocracy implies not only greater upward mobility from the bottom, but greater downward mobility from the top. (In a genuine meritocracy, chances of ending up in a specific social class would be more or less equal whatever social class your parents are in. Relative to where we are, this implies that chances for those born to lower class parents to attain higher class status will have to go up, and the chances for those born to higher class parents to attain this same status will have to go down.)
Does Labour accept this? Does it have the policies necessary to achieve it - the polices necessary to tackle the diverse ways in which those at the top manage to pass on their economic status to their children? I am sceptical.
Third, the left does not exist only to win the battle of meritocracy. It also exists to create a society which, in important ways, transcends meritocracy. As a long line of ethical socialist thinkers - R.H. Tawney, Michael Young, John Rawls - have argued, meritocracy is not adequate for the just or good society. What matters is not merely to level the playing-field in the competition for top spots in the economic hierarchy, but also that there be less of a hierarchy.
This does not imply a policy of undiscriminating 'equality of outcome'. It does imply that we recognise how people can be disadvantaged unfairly not only by the accident of the social class into which they are born, but by the accident of the natural abilities they are born with. Even under a perfect meritocracy, real opportunities for income, wealth and fulfilment will be unequal because of differences in earnings capacity over which individuals have no control. And that is unfair.
It is sad, and perhaps telling, that after some twelve or so years in government, Labour still seems unwilling to make the case for greater social justice except in meritocratic terms. When will Labour challenge, rather than simply echo, the dominance of meritocratic norms?
Postscript: Guy Aitchison has an interesting take on the conference at OurKingdom.