Peter Kellner: A little light beach reading for those progessive fellows of the left

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Holidays, like death, can be a great leveller. Richer families can fly to more exotic locations and stay at better hotels; but the basics of a pleasant fortnight off - comfort, relaxation and a change of scene - are within the means of the great majority of Britons. So is the time to enjoy the break, now that all employees are legally entitled to four weeks off work each year.

Holidays, like death, can be a great leveller. Richer families can fly to more exotic locations and stay at better hotels; but the basics of a pleasant fortnight off - comfort, relaxation and a change of scene - are within the means of the great majority of Britons. So is the time to enjoy the break, now that all employees are legally entitled to four weeks off work each year.

There remains a minority for whom a holiday is beyond their means, either because they do not have a job, or are too badly paid to afford one. But the larger truth is that Britain has undergone a social revolution. In the past century, holidays have gone from being the preserve of the rich to the pleasure of the wider population. In terms of the chance to get away and recharge our batteries, we have plainly become a more equal society.

Unfortunately, that kind of analysis tends to be absent from standard critiques of inequality in Britain. One of the best has just been published by the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The State of the Nation is a compendium of up-to-date information about the gaps between rich and poor. It is clear, methodical and, as far as I can tell, accurate. And it prompts a fundamental question for the left about the very purpose of progressive politics: what kind of equality do we seek?

The IPPR shows that Britain has continued to become more unequal since Tony Blair became prime minister. Even though poverty has declined, as the result of the minimum wage, lower unemployment, higher pensions, the introduction of tax credits and so on, wealth is now even more concentrated in the top 1 per cent than it was under the Conservatives.

The standard response from the left is to say that this proves how little Labour has done since 1997 to make Britain a fairer society. This is unfair. Even though he has wrongly failed to raise the top rate of income tax, Gordon Brown has been an impressively redistributive chancellor by historical standards. If the gap between rich and poor has widened it is despite government policies and not because of them.

There is a reason for this. As the world's economy has become more integrated, pressure has grown to raise salaries at the top of the income scale, and keep them depressed at the bottom. Top executives, bankers, lawyers and soccer stars compete with the highest paid in America and continental Europe, while those working in call centres or on production lines are in danger of losing their jobs to India and other Asian countries unless their employers can keep their costs down.

Quite understandably, much of the public regrets this state of affairs. Most people can see little reason why anyone should be paid much above £100,000 a year. In an ideal world, incomes would be much more evenly spread. But in an ideal world, all robbers would retire, all kids would eat their greens and rain would only fall at night. We have to adjust to the world as it is, not pretend that we can wish reality away.

One of the harsh realities of 21st-century life is that income and wealth inequalities are here to stay - and, indeed that the gap between the rich and the rest of us may well continue to grow. Yes, we could outlaw million-plus salaries, push the top rate of tax up to 80 per cent, confiscate second homes and nationalise the banks. With a bit of luck we could end up as rich as Cuba or North Korea. But if we want to enjoy the freedoms and comforts of the modern world, then we are stuck with a system that gives us not only personal computers, cheap foreign holidays and The Independent on Sunday, but also a growing number of multi-millionaires.

Does this mean that the left should pack up, go home, and admit defeat at the hands of forces too powerful to restrain? Far from it. There are two huge tasks for progressive parties. The first is to eliminate poverty. This sounds like the same as reducing inequality, but it is not.

The generally accepted measure of the poverty line is 60 per cent of median income. If we line up people from poorest to richest, the median is the halfway point. If the best-off pull away from the better-off, this has no effect on the median, and hence no effect on the poverty line. In other words, it is possible to create a society in which a reduction in poverty happens at the same time as an increase in inequality. This, indeed, is what IPPR says has been happening under Labour. There is, though, still a long way to go before poverty is banished.

The second task is trickier, but no less important. It is to weaken, and where possible break, the link between money and quality of life. We already accept this principle in education and the National Health Service. The trouble is that after more than half a century of free healthcare and state schools, children from poorer families still have a lower life expectancy and a much smaller chance of reaching university than their better-off contemporaries. Money still matters far more than it should.

Likewise, everyone, regardless of their income, should be equally free from the threat of breathing polluted air or being mugged in the street. All should have easy access to banks, public parks and shops that sell fresh food. There is no good reason, even in an unequal society, why any baby should grow up in a home that is damp or cold or infested with rats. To be fair, all these things are the subject of government initiatives. But the pace is too slow, and what New Labour strategists like to call the "narrative" - that is, the overarching explanation of what ministers are up to - is missing.

It would help if the left developed a new language for talking about income, wealth, poverty and equality. As long it defines its ambition in terms of equal wealth and income, rather than universal access to the main features of a fulfilling life, disappointment and disillusion are inevitable. Worse, concentration on traditional measures of equality diverts attention from the big things that can and should be done.

Whether they are holidaying in Cornwall or Cape Cod, and staying at a bed-and-breakfast or a five-star hotel, ministers, and all who call themselves progressive, could do worse than use the break from day-to-day political pressures to ponder the real purpose of radical politics in our messy, awkward and persistently unequal world.

John Rentoul is away

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