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John Denham: helping or hindering the cause of equality?

Communities secretary John Denham's recent speech to the Fabians - which rejected the "traditional 1960s version of egalitarianism" and called for "a more nuanced view of fairness and equality" - set alarm bells ringing across a spectrum of left commentators and bloggers, including Roy Hattersley, Luke Akehurst, Tom Powdrill and Julian Dobson.

Sunder Katwala responded with a spirited defence - backed by his Fabian colleague Rachel Jolley and the TUC's Nigel Stanley - arguing that Denham's comments had been misunderstood and, in particular, taken out of context by the Guardian's trailer for the speech. Denham's defenders made the point that he wasn't dumping equality as an aim, but finding new ways to make it popular and to challenge the Daily Mail's anti-egalitarian vision. Jolley asked: "The question is: why is the Daily Mail's vision winning, and how do you tackle the fear and anger it creates?"

If that's what Denham intended then good - but I can't help thinking this is too generous a reading of Denham's argument. The question Jolley could have asked is: does Denham challenge the Mail's view or pander to it? His comments about rejecting the "1960s version" of equality appear to do the latter even if other bits in his speech were more in tune with his Fabian audience.

First, sticking "1960s" in front of "egalitarianism" has the air of creating a straw man - just as the Daily Mail appends "trendy" to "teachers". The last 30 years have been marked by growing inequality and a relaxed attitude to the "filthy rich" - and that's been as true of Labour in power as the Tories. If we're going to refer to the 1960s, then the real cause for concern is in the Guardian's recent headline: "Gap between rich and poor widest since 60s".

Second, given that the speech was supposed to be about developing a compelling narrative - and not harking back to the past - where were the new ideas or recognition of recent trends? Much of Denham's speech could have been made by any Labour minister over the last 12 years. There are at least three significant omissions:

1) Why not a single mention of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's seminal work, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better? If anything offers the basis of a 21st-century case for equality it is this, and as Bill Kerry, secretary of the Equality Trust set up by Wilkinson and Pickett, suggests, it provides a way to take equality "out of the left ghetto".

In making the case for equality from the point of view of people's interest rather than appeals to social justice, the Spirit Level addresses one of Denham's key concerns: that people think there's nothing in it for them, particularly if they don't consider themselves "poor". In Denham's words:

"[Fabian research shows] most people think they are in the middle ground, economically and socially. They do not see themselves either as one of the poor or deprived, or as belonging in the ranks of the very well off. This raises real practical issues. If you think you are in this middle group, policies and language aimed at 'the poor' by definition exclude you ... So our language needs to be inclusive; and to avoid defining - even inadvertently - the bottom against the middle."

The Spirit Level offers a compelling argument for equality to appeal to those "in the middle". If anything, its message is a little too middle class; it has less to say to the alienated poor, which brings us to the second omission…

2) Like so many ministers, Denham seems to focus on the middle to the exclusion of those at the bottom who feel abandoned by Labour and have drifted into apathy or towards the far right. Appeals to Middle Britain are all very well (and Denham, to his credit, acknowledges that not everyone who sees themselves as in the middle is in the middle), but last month's election results show the folly of Labour ignoring its traditional working-class constituencies.

When Denham says our language "needs to be inclusive", he means inclusive of the middle. A more apposite question might be how do you build a coalition that spans those who see themselves as working class and middle class - and can you reach them all with the same message? The Obama election campaign was hardly shy of universalistic slogans - but combined them with carefully crafted messages aimed at specific groups. Perhaps the case for equality involves arguments for social justice, self-interest and common good depending who you're talking to.

But it also involves a clear and passionate commitment to change. As Stephen Denning spells out in his insightful study, The Secret Language of Leadership, connecting with the public is the starting point of transformational leadership, not the aim (and, in our current state, any politician not committed to transformation may as well go home to their duck house). Denham seems to be doing two things at once - which may be why his speech led to such a mixed response: he sets out a basis for winning public opinion over to greater equality, but appears to water down the meaning of that equality.

3) Perhaps the strongest argument against inequality right now is its role in fuelling the financial crisis. It is not just a question of bonus-hungry fat cats making bad decisions, but, as Paul Cotterill points out, "the deepening inequity between capital and labour". A growing body of analysis makes this link, including Graham Turner's The Credit Crunch, Paul Mason's Meltdown, Douglas Dowd's forthcoming Inequality and the Global Economic Crisis, and Gerald Holtham's Prospect article, "Workers of the world compete". William Keegan, writing in the Observer, summarises one recent study:

"Tim Lankester, a distinguished civil servant, now President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford … argues that the growth in inequalities of income and wealth in the US and UK in recent decades - quite apart from any moral and social aspects - itself contributed to the financial and economic crisis. He sees the huge increase in top incomes, supplemented by massive borrowing, as having driven up property prices, which forced families on middle and lower incomes to borrow beyond their means: 'When the financial and property bubbles burst, falling prices reduced the value of collateral pledged by borrowers - thus weakening the banks' balance sheets.'

"He concludes that in capitalism's last great crisis, in the 1970s, the problem was the declining share of profits and the rising share of wages and salaries. In the latest crisis the problem has been that 'too large a share of national income has gone to high-income earners and not enough to the lower paid'."

If this underlying cause has failed to penetrate the popular consciousness, it may be because ministers prefer not to talk about it.

One more thing: the Daily Mail celebrated Denham's speech with an editorial entitled "Minister represents outbreak of sense against Equality Bill". Not much sign of prejudices being tackled there.

Stop press: Sunder Katwala has published a response to Roy Hattersley's criticisms of Denham.

Posted by Other TPA at 12:45pm on 6 July 2009
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Oh dear…... I really was quite depressed by John Denham’s comments. This is typical New Labour ‘think’. You can see why many are abandoning hope in the party. He’s wrong!

And Denham’s ideas are not based on good research either - unlike Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’; this book seems to have had a positive effect, with the launch and growth of The Equality Trust.

Equally good was Richard Wilkinson’s earlier books ‘The Impact of Inequality’ and ‘Unhealthy Societies’.

Posted by Graeme Kemp at 04:02pm on 6 July 2009

I doubt that the Guardian would have got the impression they did without reason - that is to say, that someone at the Denham suggested his comments would be in some way critical of equality.

Posted by Charlie Marks at 01:49am on 8 July 2009

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