Monday 14 June 2010

It's official: narrowing the inequality gap does matter, say all leadership candidates

All of the Labour leadership candidates argued that the party should be clear that reducing inequality was the defining cause of the party and movement.

All of the candidates used the language of equal life chances and narrowing the gap, championed by the Fabian Society to bring the language of equality back into Labour politics, demonstrating that this has now clearly become common currency among the contenders at the top of the party; a pro-equality consensus which marked a clear rejection of Tony Blair's reluctance to use the language of equality or to say that "narrowing the gap" mattered a decade ago.

"If we are going to talk about wealth inequality, then pandering to the pressure to cut inheritance tax in 2007 when 95% of estates already paid no inheritance tax was a mistake. It got us no political credit at all", Ed Balls told the hustings event. He predicted that the inheritance tax issue will come back under the Conservatives and LibDems, stressing that Labour should fight it.

"It must be a central objective of policy to narrow the gap between rich and poor. It is so hard to do that, unless you make it a central objective it isn't going to happen", said Ed Miliband.

"We have reversed the trend of inequality of the Thatcher years, but there is more to do", said Diane Abbott. "There was a period when it seemed as though equality was a dirty word in the party", she argued, though the responses of the other candidates showed that was no longer the case.

"We aren't intensely relaxed about the filthy rich and it is important we say that", said Ed Balls. He stressed that it was the responsibility of leadership candidates over the next two months to move to the practical, noting too that the Labour government had been the most redistributive government since 1945-50, citing the impact of tax credits, reductions in child poverty and the extension of child benefit to begin in pregnancy.

"The gap does matter: it is not just about the floor, it is about inequality too", said David Miliband, saying he wanted to talk about "inequalities plural" inequalities of wealth, where he cites the abolition of the baby bond, and inequalities of power too. He says social networks make a big difference, so would support a national internship scheme as a small policy that could make an important impact.

"We still live in a country where life chances are unevenly distributed", says Andy Burnham, speaking powerfully about why his personal background - and always fearing "a tap on the shoulder" saying that the opportunities he had enjoyed were not "for the likes of you" informed his belief that a more equal distribution of health, wealth and life chances was central to what he and the party were about.


Ed Miliband said he was proud of the last Labour government's record on child poverty, but wants to see inequality tackled at the bottom and the top. He talks about his campaign on the living wage, which has to be set by campaigning as well as by law. "We have to talk about the top", he says, saying that "the bully pulpit of government" can make a difference here. He challenged David Cameron's unwillingness to look at the impact of the highest incomes in the private sector.

"David Cameron has asked Will Hutton to look at top pay in the public sector. I say he should extend it to the private sector or I will ask Will Hutton to do it for us", said Ed Miliband.

"Its not enough to talk about commissions and the bully pulpit. We are going to have to talk about what we will do", said Balls, noting the challenge of dealing with inequality at the top given the ability of top earners to move.


DeanMH said...

Interesting that this post avoids use of the word 'class', which was used by at least two of the candidates on more than one occasion. Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham were both insistent that those from working-class and minority backgrounds are most at risk of disenfranchisment. The phrase 'equal life chances' is empty rhetoric and ignores the complex challenges of engaging with subcultures to create opportunity where there is currently none.

It felt very much tonight that social class was the elephant in the room that the Fabian Society just didn't want to acknowledge. Several of the questions selected for presentation to the candidates were not ones to make or break a nation. They reflected the interests of an out of touch, privileged class.

Sunder Katwala said...


It simply isn't the case that the Fabian Society is trying to avoid the language of social class.

The methodology of getting these blogs up was two of us writing them on alternate questions live as people spoke, so they can't easily be comprehensive. (It has gone up later simply as I was out of battery and signal).

The foundation of the life chances argument is that who your parents are and where you are born does far too much to determine opportunities and outcomes, and that politics needs to break that down. It is very explicitly about class.

For example, we did a whole issue about class of our quarterly magazine, and its been a central theme of our work on child poverty, inequality, taxation, solidarity.

DeanMH said...

Thanks, Sunder.

Perhaps my first comments were harsh, but they were in frustration at not hearing enough about the communities I feel were increasingly ignored by New Labour.

It is right, of course, that one's opportunities and outcomes determines one's chances in life, but I think the Left needs to look very closely at the current nature of inequality. I think Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott seem most aware of the 'invisible' cultural issues that need to be addressed.

It is imperative that we learn more about why certain demographics aren't thriving. When I return to the council estate I grew up on, I see families whose standard of living has increased on benefits but who have little access to credible opportunities for creating a more financially successful and stable life for themselves. It is painful to go home and hear, for example, that my 16-year-old niece has slipped into depression after months of trying to find a job or even work experience. When asked what she wants to do in life she simply cannot come up with an answer.

It is going to take quite a heavy yet understanding hand to improve the confidence of young people like my niece. Her (our?) community often lacks the cultural values and contacts it needs to thrive. So, on a more positive note, I welcome the comments from Andy Burnham on forging links between disadvantaged communities and those with greater influence and power. I only hope that he and the other candidates, all of whom were excellent last night, understand that university and a move into middle-class professional circles are not an answer for everybody.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for the reply. My response was a little defensive. The final point is a good one. The Fabian Life Chances Commission criticised the idea of "social mobility" for that reason in discussing life chances, suggesting it leads to a concern with "narrow ladders" rather than "broad highways" of advancement - a concern focused narrowly on whether the brightest child in a working-class primary school class can 'escape their fate' and get to Oxbridge and Harvard (but leaving the broader spread of chances and opportunities much as they are) versus a more concerted attempt to make background less determining of life chances, opportunities and outcomes across the piece.