Equality now? Labour's agenda of economic and social reform.

Author:Diamond, Patrick
Position:Essays - Critical essay

In a recent edition of the London Review of Books, W. G. Runciman elaborates a compelling critique of the Labour Party's evolution since 1945 (Runciman, 2006). Its central theme is that the socialist values indelibly marking the Attlee era have steadily been eclipsed by the ubiquitous doctrines of market liberalism.

Runciman's essay elucidates what he thinks Labour once stood for, but has since abandoned: universal provision of welfare services according to need; the protection of organised labour's legitimate interests in the face of traditional domination by capital; a strong civil service charged with implementing central planning in the interests of the nation as a whole; and the robust defence of civil liberties.

Most notable of all, however, has been the sacrifice of Labour's formal belief in the ethical ideal of equality. Economic equality, as the term has traditionally been used, refers to inequality between individuals in respect of income, wealth and other factors that produce differences in disposable material resources (Jackson and Segal, 2004).

There are strong grounds to contest this interpretation of history, however, not least in discerning the path to sustained electoral and governing success after New Labour. What is needed today is a fundamental rethinking of social democratic strategy and policy to devise a centre-left project for Britain fit for new times.

This essay argues that New Labour's policy paradigm has reached its limits. It addresses the future of equality, relating it to Labour's development as a twentieth-century governing party of both radical intent and responsible moderation. It aims to convey the complexity of that debate; invocations of equality in the Labour Party have rarely been straightforward.

The danger for egalitarian social democracy is relying too much on the distributive sphere of social policy given the changing nature of global capitalism. Renewed focus is needed on the quality of work, the distribution of 'good' jobs in the economy, and the framework of employment rights in the UK and Europe. This suggests some modifications to the class compromise between capital and labour in Britain after Thatcherism.

Equality and Labour history since 1945

In the immediate aftermath of the 1997 victory, a fierce dispute broke out about how far and in what sense the Labour Party remained committed to equality (Levitas, 1998).

The status of equality and its influence on Labour's programme is fiercely contested. Along with public ownership and nationalisation, equality has been a totem around which ideological warfare has raged between rival factions in the party. There has also been a persistent tendency to romanticise the past, inferring that the ideological essence of equality to which Labour once adhered has now been abandoned.

The party was traditionally motivated by an imprecise conception of socialist transformation. There was a fundamental ambiguity of purpose enshrined at the outset, with little agreed framework of ideology and doctrine. Labourism as a practice implied a class perspective, but this was limited to defending the rights and claims of workers. It refused to embrace any consistent strategy for reconstructing the established order, thereby achieving the transcendence of capitalism.

The contemporary debate about equality suffers from the growing propensity to exaggerate the discontinuity between 'Old' and 'New' Labour. The modernisers have sought to portray the current Labour Party as utterly divorced from the era of Attlee, Bevan, Gaitskell and Crosland. They believe that Labour had been compromised by the defeats and incompetence of the post-war years (Mandelson and Liddle, 1996; Gould, 1998). It was against these evident failures that New Labour sought to define itself.

It is the historical continuity between 'Old' and 'New' Labour, however, that is most remarkable. This includes profound ambivalence about the pursuit of equality in British society. Labour has found gender equality, and equality in relation to ethnicity, sexuality and disability, deeply troubling at various points in its history (Hall et al., 1983).

Labour since 1997 has been the most redistributive government in modern British history. Since 1998-99 the number of children living in poverty has fallen by 0.7 million, and is now at its lowest level since the late 1980s. Some 1.5 million individuals have been lifted out of poverty, where poverty is defined as living under 60 per cent of median income.

Absolute poverty has declined steadily: the numbers living in poor households has declined from 13.9 million in 1996-97 to 12.4 million in 2002-03 (Hills, 2004). Indeed, between 1996-97 and 2001-02, income inequality rose on a variety of measures to reach its highest ever level since comparable records began in 1961, according to the gini co-efficient. Since then, income inequality has repeatedly fallen.

Median incomes have also grown by 2.6 per cent since 1997, compared with 0.7 per cent in the Major years, and 2.1 per cent during the Thatcher governments. Income transfers to poorer families have risen by nearly 1 per cent of GDP since Labour came to office (Brewer, 2006). After 1996-97, the fastest rises in mean and median incomes in the UK have been among lone parents and single pensioners. Gordon Brown's pursuit of redistribution through a higher rate of economic growth directly parallels the strategy elaborated by Crosland in The Future of Socialism (1956).

Equality today

It is clear then that Labour's approach since 1997 has reversed the trends in inequality since the early 1980s, with some evidence that Britain is developing...

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