Equality and the British Left: A Study in Progressive Political Thought, 1900-64

By Coates, David | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Equality and the British Left: A Study in Progressive Political Thought, 1900-64


Coates, David, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


Equality and the British Left: A study in progressive political thought, 1900-64 Ben Jackson MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2007

Reviewed by David Coates

Reviewing books is not my favourite occupation, but reviewing this book has been a genuine pleasure. It is rare to find so valuable and so timely a text as Ben Jackson's Equality and the British Left.

Equality and the British Left is certainly timely. As I write this, New Labour's standing in the polls is at an historic low and the inequality over which it presides stands at an historic high. New Labour candidates took just 24 per cent of the vote in the May 2008 local elections, at a moment at which the top 10 per cent of all wealth holders continued to own over half of total national wealth (the top 1 per cent own 23 per cent all by themselves). The two standings are not unconnected, for New Labour came to power in 1997 talking the language of equality and merit, contrasting the New Britain it would create to an older and more Conservative one scarred by years of inequality and privilege. More than a decade later, much of that New Labour vision now rings entirely hollow and lacks broad electoral appeal; and no wonder. For genuine equality of opportunity continues to be denied to millions of us by New Labour's deliberate retreat from a politics of equal outcomes - a retreat that New Labour in 1997 treated as a virtue, not a vice.

In 1997, equality of opportunity was in; equality of outcome was out. 'Dynamic economies of the future', Gordon Brown told us then, require 'continuous and accessible equality of opportunity ... once we take this view that what matters on ethical and economic grounds is the equal right to realise potential, we reject both an unrealisable equality of outcome - Roy Hattersley's ideal - and a narrow view of equality of opportunity - as espoused by some members of the Conservative Party' (The Guardian, 2.08.1997). In that much-cited clash with Roy Hattersley, the iron Chancellor initially won; but he would not win now. In 2008, after more than a decade of his anti-poverty programmes, progressive forces within the Party are again making the case for a radical politics focused on equality of outcome as well as of opportunity. Because they are, there is unique value in a book that traces the complex relationship between those two conceptions of equality in the first six decades of the Labour Party's existence.

Jackson is keen to show how certain core egalitarian ideas were passed from generation to generation of left-leaning intellectuals; how those ideas were adapted by each generation to suit the conditions of the time; and how in that way the British left sustained over time a sophisticated and valuable discussion about how best to extend equality and social justice. Picking up Michael Freeden's distinction between the left's two inherited strands of radical politics - the meritocratic strand of centrist liberalism and the egalitarian thrust of left liberalism - Jackson takes us back into debates on philosophy and policy that stretch from the days of Keir Hardie to those of Harold Wilson. He argues that by 1964 a social-democratic egalitarianism has established its ascendancy in that clash of alternatives. He also argues that it was an ascendancy it would then lose - and lose rapidly - as the limits of Labour in power and the counter-assault of a revitalised market liberalism pulled the centre of political gravity in the UK back towards the alternative meritocratic pole. …

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