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Impoverished politics

Michael Fitzpatrick examines how New Labour has redefined the meaning of poverty and equality

'The class war is over, but the struggle for true equality has just begun.' Tony Blair, 28 September 1999

In his emotional speech to Labour's centenary conference, Tony Blair proclaimed New Labour's commitment to tackling inequalities in British society. Repeating the findings of Opportunity for All: tackling poverty and social exclusion, the government's first annual report on poverty, Blair declared that three million children - one in three - were living in poverty in Britain. He endorsed the pledge made earlier to the conference by chancellor Gordon Brown to 'end child poverty within a generation'.

Blair's emphasis on equality - like his homage to Labour's founding father Keir Hardie - went down well with the party faithful. It seemed to some that New Labour was coming home to some traditional socialist concerns. In fact, Blair was careful to put a distinctively New Labour spin on the concept of equality, and others have helped clarify the terms of this redefinition.

'True equality', Blair explained, meant 'equal worth'. For New Labour, equality is not primarily a question of income or resources, more one of parity of esteem. As Brown put it, poverty was 'not just a simple problem of money, to be solved by cash alone', but a state of wider deprivation, expressed above all in 'poverty of expectations'. This approach obscures the material roots of inequality and tries to explain it in cultural and psychological terms.

Just in case there was any misunderstanding, Anthony Giddens, chief theoretician of the Third Way, bluntly explained 'Why the old left is wrong on equality' (New Statesman, 25 October). There was, he asserted, 'no future' for traditional left-wing egalitarianism and its redistributionist 'tax and spend' fiscal and welfare policies. Instead, 'modernising social democrats' needed 'to find an approach that allows equality to coexist with pluralism and lifestyle diversity'. Giddens' new egalitarianism means accepting wide differentials in income, but insisting on 'equal respect'. There is a parallel here with the elevation of issues such as 'hate speech' and 'negative images' in relation to women and black people over persistent inequalities in pay levels. New Labour's message to the poor is: never mind the width of the income gulf - feel the quality of our recognition of your pain.

New Labour's preoccupation with inequality is closely linked to its concept of social exclusion. For Giddens, more equality means greater inclusion: 'all members of society should have civil and political rights, opportunities for involvement in society.' From this perspective people have no claim on the resources of society, but an equal right to participate in civic affairs.

Another sympathetic commentator - David Goodhart, editor of Prospect - is more explicit. He argues that if you accept that there is no alternative to the capitalist market, then inequality is inevitable; so, forget about the gap between rich and poor and settle for a bit more fairness ('Don't mind the gap', Prospect, August/September). A fair society 'would not be a full meritocracy, but it would have a high degree of status equality and a reasonably fluid social order'. The clarion call to the cause of equality turns out to be little more than a feeble plea for fair play.

Blair's counterposition of his (modern) struggle for equality to the (obsolete) class struggle is revealing. Marx famously insisted that he claimed no credit for discovering the class struggle, which had long been recognised; his distinctive contribution was to recognise the potential of class conflict to overthrow capitalism and inaugurate a higher form of society. As we know, this potential was not realised and, over the past decade, familiar forms of class conflict have come to an end and a fatalistic resignation to market forces has become almost universal.

Despite claims that history itself has come to an end, society has not stood still - indeed, many have experienced change in a more intense way than ever before. But change no longer appears to be the result of conscious human direction - it seems to be the outcome of the random, chaotic actions of diverse, isolated individuals and uncontrollable social (and natural) forces. Change perceived in this way provokes fear rather than any positive sense of anticipation about the future. Blair's crusade for equality may be best understood as a response to the insecurities generated by globalisation and technological innovation. Whereas Marx identified the class struggle as a vehicle of social transformation, New Labour has seized upon the struggle for equality as a device for holding together a society obsessed with its tendencies towards disintegration.

A recent book by an influential member of the New Labour elite - Charles Leadbeater's Living on Thin Air: the new economy ('an extraordinarily interesting thinker' - Tony Blair; 'the agenda for the next Blair revolution' - Peter Mandelson) provides a good illustration of the anxieties driving the crusade for equality. Though he asserts in the preface that 'globalisation is good' and that he is optimistic about its prospects, Leadbeater is troubled that 'inequality has become an acute, chronic and endemic feature of modern society' (what a relief that it's only a metaphorical disease!). He returns to the social pathology arising from the new economy in his gloomy concluding section, 'the future: tense', admitting that 'the measures proposed in this book to tackle rising inequality do not go far enough'.

In fact I could not find any specific measures to tackle inequality in Living on Thin Air. However, what Leadbeater expresses is a twofold anxiety that is prevalent among that (majority) section of society that includes the beneficiaries of increasing social polarisation. On the one hand, many fear that, given the insecurity of employment in the 'thin air' economy, they could easily find themselves at the opposite pole. On the other hand, they perceive the poor (the 'underclass', the 'socially excluded') as a threat, no longer in the shape of collective resistance, but in the atomised forms of crime, drug abuse and antisocial behaviour.

There is a striking contrast between the preoccupation of the political elite with growing inequality in society and the indifference of most of the population to this trend. Commentators on a recent American survey revealing increasing disparities in income and wealth over the past 20 years noted the absence of any resulting pressure on the emerging presidential candidates to adopt redistributionist policies - indeed, demands for further cuts in welfare remain popular (see Andrew Sullivan, 'The rich are richer so why aren't the poor revolting?', Sunday Times, 19 September). In Britain there is some resentment of 'fat cats', but there is also acclamation for youthful 'internet millionaires'.

One explanation for the lack of popular concern about inequality may be that headlines proclaiming the growing immiseration of Western society do not correspond to people's experience. The statistics of growing impoverishment have been particularly challenged in the USA, where declining unemployment and increasing wages during the 1990s have reversed earlier trends, leading to improvements in the living standards of the poorest sections of society. Right-wing critics of the fashion for defining poverty in relative terms note the high proportions of households designated 'poor' that are equipped with consumer durables - two thirds have air conditioning (Robert Rector, The Myth of Widespread American Poverty, Heritage Foundation, 1998). One does not have to accept an absolute definition of poverty as a lack of the resources necessary to ensure physical survival, to recognise that the extreme relativisation of poverty risks making the concept so diffuse as to become meaningless.

Take the much-repeated statistic that 'one in three' children in Britain is living in poverty. This is derived from setting the threshold of poverty as a household income below half the national average. Yet a moment's reflection is enough to realise that the figure is manifestly absurd. While there is undoubtedly a real problem of child poverty, the notion that this afflicts more than three million children (according to some estimates, up to 4.4 million) bears no relation to the reality of a society in which children appear - at all levels - to be more pampered than at any time in history. It is not surprising that some social policy experts are complaining that by grotesquely inflating the scale of the problem, the pressing needs of a much smaller number of children are neglected.

Such is the elite obsession with child poverty in Britain that the 'one in three' statistic goes unquestioned. Blair's conference speech vignette of a baby born to a lone, unemployed and unsupported mother in a cold, damp bed-and-breakfast, destined to a life of domestic violence, delinquency and drug abuse, was applauded to the echo. In my experience as a GP in one of the most impoverished boroughs in the country, such cases do occur, but they are rare. Television documentaries and newspapers compete for the most authentic revelations about children living in conditions of squalor and degradation. The morbid preoccupation of the New Labour elite with poverty is more revealing of its internal insecurities than a reflection of the real problems of society. As in Victorian England, exposures of child poverty have become a sort of pornography for the chattering classes.

If the government has ruled out reducing inequality by raising the income of the poor, how is it planning to tackle poverty? The key measures announced by Gordon Brown in September are to reduce the burden of tax on working families, the Sure Start programme of initiatives targeted at under-threes, and a children's fund to sponsor charitable, voluntary and community projects. The chancellor also intends to bring forward planned increases in spending on education. Not enough, says Polly Toynbee, the Guardian's ultra-Blairista; '£2 billion more a year doesn't touch it':

'We are talking, say £15 billion a year more for intensive individual teaching, genuine therapy, one-to-one attention from the youngest age, breakfast and tea clubs, highest quality activities from birth right through to success, whenever that may be, a monumental programme unthinkable ever before.'

Instead of a 'war on poverty' we are going to get a 'war on the poor', a programme of state intervention in the intimate lives of those designated poor - 'one in three', remember. That such an authoritarian project is now not only thinkable but doable is a tribute to New Labour's redefinition of equality.

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000

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