First published in Huffington Post
If you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.
This is what our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, said before walking through the door of Number 10 Downing Street last month. Jeremy Corbyn, in a speech launching his defence of the Labour Party leadership, had this to say:
The injustices that scar society today are not those of 1945 … Want, Squalor, Idleness, Disease and Ignorance … And they have changed since I first entered Parliament in 1983…Today what is holding people back above all are … Inequality… Neglect … Insecurity … Prejudice … and Discrimination …
And his opponent in that contest, Owen Jones, said he would rewrite the party’s Clause4 ‘to put tackling inequality right at the heart of everything that we do’.
So is inequality a spectre (to misquote Karl Marx) that is haunting the UK?
According to Tom Bailey, who I have invited to speak on the topic, ‘The past few decades have seen a dizzying amount of the world lifted out of poverty’. This is a consequence of economic growth, he argues, in places like China where 500 million people who were living in poverty are no longer doing so. As a result global inequality has actually fallen. So what is meant by inequality today? If we are increasingly equal and people are being pulled out of poverty at unprecedented rates, why are leftists and conservatives alike so obsessed with it?
How desirable, even, is equality? In the UK we were at our most equal in 1979, after four decades in which the gap in earnings got progressively narrower. At the outbreak of the second world war just over a third of the national income went to the top 10% of the population. Forty years later they accounted for just over a fifth of the national income and the poorest were a bit better off than they were before. While this may sound like a comparative utopia it is perhaps worth remembering that this was also a time of profound crisis and division in the country. The world economy was in turmoil and the British state was about to stamp on striking workers and rioting inner-city youth.
More to the point for all the focus on relative poverty by campaigners, we are absolutely better off now than we were back then. Even the poorest are nowhere near as poor as they were. This may seem an obvious point but it is continually lost on those who seem to think we’ve never had it so bad.
But what of gender inequality in the workplace? The ‘reviewing’ of Kevin Roberts’ position as Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi for saying it isn’t a problem is surely evidence enough that it is? Well, no. As Joanna Williams argues, ‘the gender pay gap is dead’. If you compare like with like, the so-called glass ceiling is a myth. The assertion that women are getting a bad deal at work is a distraction from what really does hold them back – a lack of affordable childcare. The misplaced focus on women’s fast-diminishing inequality in the workplace also ignores the longstanding decline of traditionally male-dominated industries and the rise of the more female-friendly service sector in its place. The UK and indeed the world is less sexist than ever. The leading role of women in some of the planet’s most powerful jobs, from Christine Lagarde and Hilary Clinton to Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, should make that obvious.
That’s not to say all is well. Far from it. But rolling out the same old rhetoric about capitalist excess, exploited workers and untold misery – when capitalists have never been so risk-averse, unproductive and keen to virtue signal; and the ill-effects of their system so mitigated by state intervention – makes no sense. We are living through a period not only of longstanding economic stagnation but also of political cluelessness about what to do about it. It is surely more important – especially now, post-Brexit, when the political class is running for cover – that we have a national debate on how we go about building a more prosperous future, not worrying over the dividing up of what little wealth is being generated now.