From a government ramping up VAT, abolishing universal child benefit, and liberalising tuition fees we have suddenly heard the language of ‘fairness’. Throughout conference season, fairness provided the leitmotif of coalition speeches. The word recurred no fewer than 13 times in David Cameron’s lacklustre call to arms. And it was at the core of Ed Miliband’s excellent start to prime minister’s questions.
In claiming fairness, the coalition is once again stealing Labour’s clothes. Just as our cooperative inheritance has been subsumed by the ‘big society’, so the guiding light of our ethical tradition is at risk of being lost to the deadly coalition embrace. So it must be top of Miliband’s ambitions to make sure this intellectual landgrab is less successful than the ‘big society’.
Like life, the market is inherently inequitable. It accelerates concentrations of capital, the unequal distribution of riches and rewards, and can leave communities and industries almost redundant overnight – ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ The Labour movement came into being to confront the inequalities born of the mid-Victorian, ‘nightwatchman’ state.
Ours was a belief in collective action, solidarity, and political representation as vehicles to confront the iniquities of the unregulated marketplace. From Robert Owen in New Lanark to the early cooperative movement and the founding of the Trades Union Congress in Manchester, there was an appreciation that, left to itself, the market distributed education, health, housing, nutrition and leisure with no eye to social justice. This was not egalitarianism in terms of equality of outcome, but a belief that the ‘fair society’ and a moral economy demanded forms of collective and statutory intervention.
But there was also an appreciation that the state itself was often an agent of unfairness. One didn’t have to agree fully with Marx and Engels’ assertion that the state was simply a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie, to realise that the state – through a series of anti-labour judgements from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Taff Vale – was actively opposed to social justice. Rather than taming the market, the pre-democratic state was often involved in an active process of intensifying injustice.
The great intellectual transformation of the 20th century interwar years was Labour’s embrace of a democratic state to alleviate market injustices. While the response of the establishment to the Depression was to wield the Geddes Axe and slash public spending, the Labour party and trade unions sought state activism. Of course, this had long been emerging at the local government level (from school meals to council housing and transport provision), but now it gained force at a national level.
The ‘terrible Thirties’ were recast as the acme of inequity thanks to a new notion of social citizenship drawn from, among others, the work of RH Tawney. This was the thinking about fairness which would inspire the architects of the post-war welfare state: a compelling vision that those who had sacrificed so much during the second world war should not be rewarded with a return to the unfair Thirties. In place of the deserving and undeserving poor, in place of Poor Law Boards and ‘less eligibility’, the welfare state – as a just safety net dependent upon a fair notion of exchange – was crafted. The social savageries of the market were to be tamed and the ‘five giants’ cut down. Here was fairness in action.
But it was also dependent upon a particular socioeconomic model. Behind the welfare state stood a ‘Butskellite’ political economy of strong growth, corporate capitalism, almost full employment, a system of nuclear and supportive extended families, and a racially cohesive monoculture. This provided the social capital for the Family Allowances Act (beginning child benefit), the National Health Service and the national insurance principle. The notion of responsibility and equity was obvious: one paid in during the good times, and had access to welfare provision during the hard times as of right.
This was the Labour vision of fairness and it became the consensus, establishing a progressive, if statist, settlement for taxation, spending and welfare up until the 1980s. By then the Thatcher years saw little need for fairness; enterprise, not equality, was what Britain needed. Tony Blair reoccupied the terrain with his focus on ‘rights and responsibilities’, an appreciation that the welfare state had encouraged an absence of civic responsibility and a rights-based dependency culture with which Labour was too closely associated. The tough message that Labour was not a soft option when it came to distributing taxpayers’ money was fundamental to the successful electoral coalition of 1997-2010.
So this May we lost not only the general election, but also this hard-fought reputation for economic and social fairness. As we come back to opposition, Giles Radice has launched Southern Discomfort Again (see page 16), the sequel to his 1992 clarion call. The lessons he provides are as pertinent now as they were then. But here’s what has changed: a society built on aspiration has become a society built on insecurity. In the wake of the financial crisis, families are no longer asking (as they were in 1992), ‘how can I ensure a better life for my child?’ but rather ‘how can they have what I’ve had?’ With spectres looming such as rising pension costs and higher university tuition fees, people are struggling merely to hold on to what they have got.
With their backs against the wall, voters no longer felt that Labour was being ‘fair’ to them. Radice quotes a Labour party organiser summing up what they heard on the doorstep: ‘We have a good story to tell on the economy and tax credits. But they said, “I’m hard working, I pay my dues, and I don’t seem to get on, while others are getting benefits and bonuses. The ordinary working people are at the bottom of the pile. People who go to work and do the right thing are trapped”.’
Their perception is confirmed by the economics. In the first 10 years of Labour rule GDP was growing. But the pattern of growth was significantly different in the second half of this period: people were working as hard as before but their wages had stagnated. This provided the economic underpinnings for the frequency with which the language of ‘fairness’ was so often heard in the negative. Bankers and benefit cheats were the twin evils in this story of the ‘squeezed middle’ who felt unfairly treated.
Immigration was another ‘unfair’ complaint heard on the doorstep, with the appeal of the BNP having far more to do with the housing queue and job training than racism. In many white working-class communities, the Labour government was felt to have prioritised migrant families for rehousing over long-established local residents. One comment recorded by Radice sums this up: ‘It’s not a race issue, it’s this unfairness thing – other people get to the front of the queue and get handouts before we do.’
Without compromising our values, we now need some hard thinking on this territory. We live in a time of rising inequality and social change which threatens the living standards of many. As Miliband told us in his conference speech, bankers can earn in a day what a carer earns in a year. Even Adair Turner, the ex-CBI boss and head of the Financial Services Authority, has recently condemned our continuing, passive acceptance of the premise that inequality is a price worth paying.
And as this inequality persists, it becomes more entrenched. The richest live seven years longer than the poorest; at school, ethnicities repeatedly bunch in the same hierarchy of achievement. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, says that there are ‘gateways to opportunity that appear permanently closed, no matter how hard they try, while others seem to have been issued with an “access all areas” pass at birth’. Such a situation is unsustainable and inimical to Labour’s founding vision.
So, fairness must be at the heart of our intellectual regeneration. But it needs to go beyond resuscitating the language of rights and responsibilities. What we need is a political economy of fairness which begins to tackle the concentrations of property, finance and mobile capital at the heart of contemporary inequity. Fairness is not just a word. It can provide the basis for a credible political strategy for the future – and the coalition should not be allowed to seize it.
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