This blog repeats an argument I made a couple of weeks ago, but, for once, the more I hear, the more sure I am...
A few years ago, when I was Director of IPPR, I developed what I thought was a ‘big idea’. Sadly, I was almost alone in thinking this. But this week I have found myself returning to the same idea.
My argument five years ago was with the left. I suggested that its obsession with inequality was a mistake – my view was that what people want is to live in ‘the good society’ which will tend to mean a place that is fair, safe, pleasant etc. The left, I reasoned, needed to demonstrate that greater equality was necessary to have such a good society. In doing this, it also needed to recognise that the public’s commitment to fairness is not the same as the left’s definition of equality: people may well feel that ‘unequalness’ is fair if, for example, it’s based on merit or effort. By taking it for granted that equality was something everybody signed up to, the left was in danger of distancing itself from the public’s priorities.
So, it has been fascinating this week to hear a powerful argument that ‘the good society’ must be reasonably equal. This is the core thesis of Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level, which we discussed here at the RSA yesterday.
Furthermore in the work of Elizabeth Gould (speaking here in two weeks' time) and in the answers given to me by Jonah Lehrer at our event last night, we can now see a strong causal argument linking inequality, status anxiety, and a variety of social problems.
So now my question is to people on the political right: given the strength of the argument that high levels of inequality are socially pernicious, will the right accept that reducing inequality is a valid and important policy objective? If so, there is a perfectly valid argument between left of centre strategies to achieve more equality, and right of centre.
The electoral triumph of New Labour came in part from a willingness of the centre left to see that markets are a powerful tool and are not inherently socially divisive. Just as Labour was able to grab the political centre ground by saying ‘markets work’, can the right do the same by saying ‘inequality matters’?
Here is a brief video of Jonah Lehrer speaking about his ideas