Harriet Harman puts class at heart of election battle” screamed the headline of The Guardian’s online version this morning. The sub header was a more measured “Labour deputy leader to make inequality a key dividing line with the Conservatives“. One of the quotes from Harman’s speech about the issue is: “Persistent inequality of socio-economic status – of class – overarches the discrimination or disadvantage that can come from your gender, race or disability.” This I find maddening.

If you read Harman’s words purely in terms of the economic interpretation of class her argument makes sense. But for me and for so many others the word ‘class’ rankles at a sociological level.

I’m by any definition middle class – 2 university degrees, working in tertiary industry etc. – and the same could be said for my mother, a teacher, who enjoys bourgeois pursuits such as regular visits to plays at Stratford and the Hay Festival. That doesn’t however stop her banging on about how her ‘working class roots’ are so vital to her. Essentially for her and many others the word ‘class’ is not purely economic, it is also social, and surveys tend to prove this in the UK.

Where Harman does have a point is to do with inequality. The gaping inequality in the UK economy is clear to see everywhere, from the idiocy where it’s viable to have armies of low paid workers handing out free newspapers to well paid commuters, to the dreadful condition of UK social housing. Wilkinson and Pickett’s landmark work The Spirit Level gives dozens of reasons why more equal societies almost always do better and – importantly – these benefits are not only confined to the poorer people in society. Even the richer groups in society benefit from safer streets, better life expectancy etc.

So, in short, “dealing with inequality” and “class war” (or words of that nature) must not be used interchangeably. Labour needs to promote a vision of a more equal, more fair, more inclusive society and – importantly – have policies that can actually deliver that. For the many, not the few as the 1997 line so aptly put it. Recourse to talking about class takes the focus of true inequality and pits one part of society against another, and that’s absolutely not what Labour should be doing. Just look at what happened in Crewe.

2 Comments

  1. I meant “get”, natch.

  2. Great post, Jon: I couldn’t agree more.

    I think recent government pronouncements on equality have been fascinating. As I often say, I’m as “New” as a Labour supporter can get. The key message of Crosland’s “Future of Socialism” was to make the “end” of equality Labour’s central aim, rather than to allow the “means” of nationalisation, redistribution, trade unionism, economic planning and so on to become ends in themselves. The SDP, for me, reflected that politics better, when it came, than did early 80s Labour (and had other virtues such as being pro-European, internationally multilateralist and consitutionally reformist). What was so attractive about New Labour to me was the way it re-state and re-energise Croslandism, though talking about “fairness” rather than “equality”.

    I was amazed, though, that Tony Blair himself was “relaxed” about the gap between rich and poor. What’s even more amazing is that so many people – not just the Blairite right but a fair amount of what you might call the soft cultural left – seemed to think equality was entirely about sex and race, then later sexuality, disability and so on. I have always been extremely irritated by talk of “equalities”, which is always focused on specific axes of inequality – again, the familiar list of sex, race, sexuality etc. – and seems to me to ignore *equality itself* which includes not only those specific axes, but includes others such as north-south, public-private and, crucially, rich-poor.

    So in a sense I welcome talk about class – but again, that is only a limited aspect of inequality. It is one axis, and not as important as all that. Many people who feel “working class” and might be described as such by sociologists are fairly well off. Others are middle class to their bones, but earning very little. So there is a real danger that to focus on class (or indeed James Purnell’s talk of “equality of capacity”) can just become another way of avoiding the central issue of *equality of income and wealth*. I don’t say that is the only kind of inequality that matters, But it matters a lot, and should be central to Labour politics. It’s crazy to want to talk only about equality of everything and anything else.

    That’s why I was delighted by Harriet Harman’s stance in the “handbag war”. I thought Hazel Blears’s stance was the “income-gap-blind” approach that has led Labour and Britain astray, and that Harriet’s handbag image neatly expressed the central thing wrong about our society now: a cult of superficially glamorous consumerism and inflated prices, only possible because some have undreamt-of, free-floating amounts of disposable income and unearned asset wealth, alongside a loss of buying power and security – think of pensions – among the unbonused and asset-poor.

    I’d encapsulate the problem myself by pointing to the “buy to let” scandal: a significant micro-trend (more, actually) of people whose lack of confidence in earned wages and pensions led them to seek economic success in (a) borrowing (b) asset speculation and (c) literally, rent-seeking. The fact that “property development” had become such an aspirational activity by Labour’s second term should have been a red warning light, politically and economically.

    The recent growing inequality of income and wealth is Labour’s main policy failing in my view, and to tackle it means focusing hard on reforming the ludicrous credit-fulled housing market and raising the level of low, mean and median incomes as a share of GDP. I think Labour’s renewal should focus on this stuff, and any candidate for the leadership who concentrates on that (as long as he or she doesn’t spoil things with deal-breakingly bad policies in other areas, as early 80s Labour did) will bet my support.

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