By Matt Cooper (writing May 2009)
At the start of May, new figures showed that the gap between rich and poor is now bigger than it was when Thatcher left office in 1990. Inequality lessened under Major, to 1997, but has increased every year since Labour were elected except for a small fall between 2000 and 2003.
The introduction of the Child Tax Credit, the brief social democratic moment of the current government, was probably the reason why the gap between rich and poor fell between 2000 and 2003. Brief it was.
Yet at the end of April the government published its Equality Bill 2009. This tidying up operation incorporated many existing pieces of legislation such as the Race Relations Acts, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Acts, the Equality Act 2006 and other pieces of anti-discrimination legislation.
Never has there been so much legislation for equality, accompanied by so much increase in actual inequality. Why?
The older laws against race and sex discrimination were part of the project of the “revisionist” right wing of the Labour Party in the 1960s. Those “revisionists” preferred the concept of equality of opportunity to any drive for actual equality in the distribution of society’s wealth and power.
Actual equality was utopian, they argued. But to discriminate on the grounds of race or gender, or to deny educational opportunities to children from poorer families, was unfair; and, moreover, it was economic nonsense, squandering society’s resources. Equality of opportunity could allow a rational, somewhat more civilised, capitalism.
Noone would face unfair or irrational discrimination on the grounds of race colour, sexuality, their parents’ income, or any other irrelevant characteristic. People’s aptitude would gain them education; the skills and qualifications won through education would win them employment; their money would buy goods and services.
There would still be billionaires and paupers, bosses and wage-slaves; only, the selection of who would become a billionaire boss would be based not on family background but on talent and drive (or, at least, some talents and drives...)
One kind of inequality (based on prejudice and irrational discrimination) would be replaced by another (based “rationally” on ability). There would be a “fair” distribution of inequality, so that white people and black people, gay people and straight, and so on would have the same chance of ending up poor.
Whether all that was desirable or not — the term “meritocracy” was originally coined to denounce the idea that this was any sort of just society — it was in any case unrealistic. So long there are families with wealth, and families without, children will be on an uneven playing field. “Money don’t get everything, it’s true” — but on the whole, in a competitive, money-based society with formal equality of opportunity, children will tend to follow in the occupational, educational and cultural footsteps of their parents.
Social mobility — that is, not equality, but the opportunity for people from poor family backgrounds to move “up” the social ladder — did increase for those born between 1958 and 1970. That was largely caused not by formal equality-of-opportunity legislation, but by the moves towards comprehensive education, which to some limited degree offered a chance for all children in secondary education; a push to improve teaching so it reached all children irrespective of background; and attempts to put more funds into schools into deprived areas.
These were highly limited measures, done better in other capitalist states. But in any case social mobility has stalled or worsened for cohorts born after 1970.
It is difficult to say whether social mobility has changed for children born under the New Labour government — a child of nursery age in 1997 will only just be leaving school now — but research by the Sutton Trust provides solid reason to think that mobility will not increase.
Labour’s love-affair with “diversity” and “choice” in education is often choice only for better-off parents and back-door selection, increasing inequality of opportunity.
The drive to get more and more young people into university has, paradoxically, probably worsened social mobility. In the 1950s or 1960s, a large proportion of the children even of the well-off did not go to university, and a large swathe of well-paid jobs were open to people without university qualifications. A talented, ambitious child from a poor family could rise high through promotion in the workplace.
Now, almost all children of the well-off go to university; university qualifications are needed for the big majority of well-paid jobs; and the talented young person who has failed to get to university faces an almost impassable barrier.
Marx understood well that mere formal equality of rights could not lead to actual equality. In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx stated that formal equal rights would lead to unequal outcomes. He argued that society should be run on the basis: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”; and that this could be achieved by the abolition of private property in the means of production and its replacement with free human co-operation to produce for need.
In fact, many liberals, too, have recognised the inadequacy of mere formal equality, or equality of opportunity. As early as the 1880s some liberals were saying their their version of equality of opportunity required that all be fed, housed and educated, and recognising that this called for collective intervention, whether through voluntary mutual and friendly societies or through the state.
The modern welfare state may have been a key achievement of the post-war Labour government but its architect, William Beveridge, was a Liberal.
More recently, one liberal political theorist, Ronald Dworkin, has gone as far to argue that real equality of opportunity can only be measured by its success in creating equality of outcome. Dworkin argues that if all, whatever their level of physical and mental ability, are to have equal opportunities, it must be an equal opportunity that means that all will finish the race at the same time, and for some this will mean a considerable and continuing support.
Such liberalism is lost on the atavistic free-market obsessed liberals of New Labour.
No socialist will disagree with laws to outlaw discrimination in employment, housing or provision of services to people on the grounds of gender, race, age, sexuality, transgender identity, disability or religion. The trouble is, even if the law ends such discrimination, in a society that is dominated by class, that will merely alter the distribution of inequality in society, not the existence of inequality itself.
For example, when the Race Relation Acts of 1965 and 1968 gave immigrants (on paper at least) equal access to housing and jobs, the equality was very often equality at the back of the queue to compete with other marginalised sections of society.
The only form of Blair-Brown equality legislation that requires anyone to spend any money helping people have a genuine equality of opportunity is the law on disability discrimination. Even there, an employer or service provider need only suffer “proportionate” expense for “reasonable” changes . The examples that the law’s explanatory notes give are of ramps, new desks, Braille keyboards and off-the shelf software. Most employers will continue to make a “business case” against any substantial effort, and the law will not change that
The idiot shadow of past attempts to create a more equal society is seen in the current Equality Bill’s requirement that any government strategic planning body give “due consideration” to the “desirability” of reducing economic inequality. Anyone who has been the kind of “impact assessment” that public bodies are require of produce in strategic planning exercises will know what an entirely meaningless paper exercises these can be.
Any government body that wishes to avoid promoting greater economic equality will be able to continue to do that while adhering to the latest rhetoric.