New Labour: What does it stand for?: Left behind?

New Labour is accused of abandoning the underdog in favour of the middle classes. What does 'equality' mean to the party now, asks Yvette Cooper

Yvette Cooper@yvettecoopermp
Wednesday 24 April 1996 23:02

Equality. Just whisper the word and watch the middle classes squirm. The successful and the privileged start counting their blessings and contemplating which they will have to sacrifice on the journey towards a brave new world. What was once a rallying cry for the outraged and the underdog to join the socialist cause sits uneasily with new Labour's pitch for middle England. Even the phrase "equality of opportunity" sounds, as one new Labour MP put it, "so tired".

Equality doesn't just alienate swing voters, it confuses them. Equality of what? Of income? Of taxes paid? Of opportunity? Each has different implications. The result is that every reference to equality has to be qualified and explained to avoid misunderstandings. So there are good political and pragmatic reasons why a hard-headed, left-of-centre party might avoid sloganising about equality.

But that does not mean new Labour can escape having a view on the subject. Equality, justice, fairness, call it what you like, ideas such as these have lain at the heart of political movements for centuries. New Labour's views on equality are an essential part of its politics.

New Labour is a moving target, continually honing its views. But Tony Blair and his allies have spent two years outlining their moral values and their speeches and policy papers hold important clues about their views on equality.

Tony Blair has wrought two fundamental changes in Labour's approach to social justice. The first is that he has set out a moral vision quite different from that of Labour traditionalists. The second is in Labour's approach to capitalism: it has moved away from the traditionalists' view of the market as the root of deep-seated class inequalities.

What we regard as unfair crucially depends upon what we think people deserve. The most striking thing about Blair as a Labour leader is that for him this depends in large part on his view of the individual. For Blair people are active, participating, choosing beings. Individuals fulfil themselves and lead moral lives through endeavour. To be happy and fulfilled then, we need to be able to make choices, to learn, to develop and to work.

But these striving, active people are not Thatcher's isolated individuals. They depend on - and thrive in - strong communities. We have obligations to the community around us - or, as Blair puts it, responsibilities as well as rights. When individuals get something out of society, it is only right that they put something back.

Membership of the community, for Blair, is the precondition of individual fulfilment, and he argues that no one should be excluded; we must all have a stake. Tough on those who take but do not give, Blair's emphasis on responsibilities has appeared harsh to some. Advocates for the underdog fear new Labour will blame the poor for failing to improve themselves. However, by insisting that everyone is always included in the community, Labour is arguing that people should always be helped to have a second, third and fourth chance in life.

New Labour's flourishing individuals are very different from the people who populate old Labour's world: passive recipients of entitlements handed out by the state; workers weak in the face of the power of business. Yet it is different, too, from the Thatcherite portrait of people as atomised bundles of self-interest.

But it is not just Labour's high-flown values that have changed - its diagnosis of the causes of inequality has changed as well.

Invectives against the evils of capitalism rarely slip through the lips of the modern Labour politician. Once they argued that class inequalities were the inevitable consequence of capitalism. New Labour takes a very different approach. In place of "working class", new Labour spokespeople refer to the unskilled.

New Labour no longer blames the market for creating unfairness. Quite the reverse. It says it believes that competition can be extremely fair. It blames vested interests for preventing the market working properly and institutionalising advantages for the few. So, for example, the glass ceilings that stop women getting to the top of their professions are based on the prejudice of male bosses, who stop the market recognising women's true worth. In the global market economy, Labour recognises the pressures for growing wage inequalities. But it identifies the most important cause as the growing economic value of skills and their unequal distribution; it's not exploitation by the ruling class.

So new Labour has changed its values and its diagnosis. The real question is, however, what that means for taxes and benefits, education and jobs.

Three important consequences for equality flow from these changes in new Labour's approach. First, it is far more important to redistribute opportunities for people to learn and work, than it is to redistribute the cash in their pockets. Hence Labour plans an expansion of job and training opportunities for the young and long-term unemployed. Before 1992, Labour's biggest commitment was to raise pensions and child benefit.

Labour traditionalists will be wincing. New Labour's distaste for redistribution through the tax and benefit system is, they say, testimony to the leadership's indifference to the plight of the poor.

Yet that charge is clearly unfair. The second consequence of Mr Blair's belief in "inclusion" is that the welfare of the worst-off must be raised. To guarantee each and every one of us a stake in his brave new world, his government would need to ameliorate the worst inequalities through tackling homelessness and poverty. With millions unemployed or homeless and one in three children brought up in poverty, these are ambitious plans.

It remains to be seen how much levelling-up Labour would actually be prepared to do in the name of social cohesion. New Labour is relatively comfortable with difference in jobs, income, lifestyles or achievements. Pavarotti and the millions he makes are fine by new Labour. People who work hard, or exploit their distinctive talents, can happily reap their rewards in the market place, for they have earned them. Endeavour deserves reward. And differences in talents and abilities are to be celebrated.

Yet equality of opportunity, on the other hand, appears to have become one of new Labour's central goals. This is the third consequence of the changes in its values and analysis. To give people the chance to fulfil themselves they need equal opportunities to learn and to get jobs. New Labour is in the midst of becoming a more meritocratic party, which believes that jobs should be allocated by fair competition, on moral and economic grounds.

Speaking last week in the John Smith memorial lecture, Gordon Brown provided a detailed account of Labour's view of equality of opportunity: "Equality of opportunity should not be a one-off, pass-fail, life-defining event but a continuing opportunity for everyone to have the chance to realise their potential to the full."

In a country where 80 per cent of the sons and daughters of unskilled workers leave school at 16, trying to achieve equality of opportunity is still a radical project, which would require shifting resources towards the education of the least skilled and least advantaged; tackling bad schools rather than subsidising private schools; taxing university graduates to cover their fees and using the money saved to improve vocational training instead.

Redistribution? Ouch. Could it be that new Labour would cut the perks and privileges of the successful to extend opportunities to others? It seems so. The party is prepared to cut child benefit for those 16- to 18-year-olds who stay on at school to finance new training and education opportunities for the teenagers who don't.

But how far are they prepared to go? New Labour has shown no interest in tackling the far bigger obstacles to equality of opportunity in Britain: private schools and inheritance. It appears their aim is radically to widen the opportunities available to the worst-off, while avoiding too much pain for those who have most. They want to level up, not down. They believe, it seems, that increasing the opportunities for the underdog need not be at the expense of the successful. They want to build a coalition with the middle classes on the grounds that they can make the entire community better off.

But there is no guarantee that they are right. Sooner or later there will be a crunch, when a Blair government has to choose between paying for a sexy new scheme to improve opportunities for the unskilled, and retaining hefty middle-class tax allowances that assist everyone else. We still can't be sure which way they will jump.

If you want to respond to our series on new Labour, please fax your letters to: 0171-293 2056.

In Saturday's Independent: Tony Blair writes in response to our series

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