In response to the growing Conservative lead in the polls a number of commentators, including Michael Portillo and Andrew Rawnsley, used weekend articles to ask questions about how ready is David Cameron for power. The thrust of the pieces was that Labour is almost down but that the Conservatives still have work to do, not just to secure a workable majority but also to show they are fully prepared for the difficult circumstances the country will face in 2010.
It may be that team Cameron can win just by not being Labour, but if the Tories do desire more definition I suggest they dip into two books I have been reading this weekend (I had to have something to take my mind of West Brom’s abject defeat by Fulham).
The first, which I am helping to launch at the LSE on Wednesday, is ‘Towards a more equal society?’ edited by John Hills and colleagues from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion. The book is a comprehensive and data rich analysis of Labour’s record on inequality. One of its general conclusions is that Labour succeeded in marginally reducing inequality in those policy (and geographical) areas to which it devoted substantial and consistent time, energy and money. The implication is that there are gravitational forces in the modern world which tend to increase inequality. On the socio-economic side these include labour market globalisation and the importance of post compulsory education, while, on the political side there is there disproportionate attention paid to the needs of ‘middle England’ as a result of the electoral system, and the commercial interests of the print media. Unless Government is very determined, the UK will drift towards greater social inequality.
The other book (which is the subject of an RSA Thursday on 5 March) is an authoritative overview of research on the relationship between social inequality and individual well being, measured by such indicators as levels of reported well-being, trust, criminality and mental illness. Richard Wilkinson, who has spent a lifetime making this point, and Fellow author Kate Pickett, demonstrate conclusively that among developed nations more equal societies are more successful. Indeed, so strong is the correlation that even if it were the case that strategies to reduce inequality had a detrimental impact on overall growth (and there is no evidence that they do) those living in the slower growing more equal societies would still be safer, happier and enjoy better health. Politicians have no difficulty in signing up either to meritocracy or to tackling poverty. In both cases they can – spuriously – imply they have policies which help the poor without taking away from the middle or top. But the same politicians tend to avoid any commitment to tackle overall social inequality. For example, to my dismay, my old boss Tony Blair made it a matter of political pride that he was insouciant in the face of massive income disparities.
Labour’s big stride forward was the commitment to abolish child poverty (although the strategy is now a long way off target), and David Cameron has committed to maintaining that aspiration. But if the Conservatives wanted real definition, and at the same time, to place millions of traditional Labour supporters in a quandary, how about David Cameron committing to a concrete target (there are plenty to choose from) to reduce social inequality in the UK?