Class Matters: UK Law Would Require Gov't to Lessen Inequality
The British Labor Party came to power a dozen years ago with a commitment to attack poverty -- and a willingness to leave rich people alone. Britain's rich proceeded to make the most of that opportunity. By 2007, the UK's wealthiest 1,000 had nearly quadrupled their collective fortune.
The poor would not be so fortunate. In 2007, child poverty in the UK increased -- by 100,000 kids. Brits born in 1970 have less chance of overcoming a lowly economic start in life than Brits born in the 1950s. Among major developed nations, only the United States displays as little social mobility as Britain.
What to do? Last week, in an official "white paper" entitled New opportunities: Fair chances for the future, the Labor Party government offered a surprisingly novel -- and rather remarkable -- proposal.
The absence of real opportunity in the UK, this white paper posits, demands an outright mandate for economic equality: a new law that would make the narrowing of the gap between rich and poor a binding obligation on every level of British government.
"We have already legislated to require public authorities to tackle the inequality that arises from race, gender, or disability," the white paper explains. "But we know that inequality does not just come from your gender or ethnicity, your sexual orientation, or your disability. Co-existing and interwoven with these specific inequalities lies the persistent inequality of social class."
Given this reality, the white paper continues, "tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds" needs to become a new "core function" of UK government.
The champion of this new mandate, Labor Party chair and UK equalities minister Harriet Harman, last week spoke in bold strokes to defend her proposal.
It is our task in government to play our part in fashioning a new social order with fairness and equality at its heart," Harman pronounced. "We want to do more than just provide 'escape routes' out of poverty for a talented few. We want to tackle the class divide.
What exactly would that tackling entail? With a mandate to narrow Britain's economic divide in effect, class bias might become grounds for government action against discrimination. Police patrols might be reallocated from wealthy neighborhoods to crime-plagued poor ones. Public sector wages might be raised first, and most significantly, at the lower job grades.
Would Harman's proposed mandate, if enacted into law, also mean an open confrontation with the grand accumulations of private wealth at the summit of the UK economy?
Some government insiders, after the white paper's release Tuesday, pooh-poohed the notion that Harman's proposal would up the pressure for an offensive to level down the British rich.
"This isn't about taking from one group of people and giving to another, more deprived set," one of these insiders insisted to the Daily Mail. "It is about leveling up, improving life for everybody."
But other observers of the UK economic scene are noting that any obligation on government to narrow "gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds" would inevitably, if taken seriously, have to confront wealth at the top. The dollars needed for fully funding early childhood programs, after all, have to come from somewhere.
Polly Toynbee, one of the UK's most widely read progressive commentators, added another reason in a Guardian column last week that hailed Harman's class mandate as "legislation of extraordinary radicalism."
If all children truly have equal opportunity, Toynbee's analysis explained, then the children of the affluent will face more competition for the limited number of places at institutions like top law firms and medical schools.
"Social mobility," as Toynbee put it, "means some must fall as others rise."
Naturally, Toynbee continued, the affluent will "fight hard to hold their own." But the fury of that fight will always depend on the level of a society's inequality. The greater the gap between rich and poor, the farther the potential distance to fall, the greater the fury of a society's affluents against government "equal opportunity" policies that threaten their privileged place.
By the same token, the more equal a society, the shorter the distance to fall, the less the affluent will rage.
"The falling hurts less," points out Toynbee, "when lifestyle, status, and pay are less cruelly divided and penalties for failure less punishing."
"For everyone to have an equal chance of success," agreed last week Britain's top trade union leader, Brendan Barber, "there needs to be a much smaller gap between rich and poor in the first place."
"All the evidence," Barber added Saturday at a national Fabian Society public policy conference, "shows that societies that are genuinely socially mobile are far more equal than the UK is today – even after the many worthwhile initiatives since 1997."
Barber went on to call for a new resolve to close the enormously large loopholes in the UK tax code. In 2006, he noted, Britain's 54 billionaires paid just 0.1 percent of their combined £126 billion -- $186 billion -- fortune in tax.
Harriet Harman's proposal for a narrow-the-class-divide mandate, Barber's remarks left plain, just might give a boost to the UK's tax-the-rich advocates.
That may be why British right-wingers have let loose at Harman and her mandate. One UK Conservative Party leader, Theresa May, is calling Harman's proposal a return to "class war." Harriet Harman, adds a Daily Telegraph commentator, "is preparing to knit in front of the guillotine while she watches the heads of the high and mighty roll."
This could get interesting. Americans -- and the rest of the world, too -- should be paying attention.