Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

From Top to Bottom: It Is Time for the Left to Rediscover One of Its Core Values, Writes Marek Kohn

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

From Top to Bottom: It Is Time for the Left to Rediscover One of Its Core Values, Writes Marek Kohn

Article excerpt

The Labour Party's belief in equality was once taken as axiomatic. After nearly a decade in government, new Labour's feelings on the subject are ambivalent and the figures are ambiguous. The incomes of the poorest fifth of the population have risen by 21 per cent since 1997, according to the Households Below Average Income analysis by the Department for Work and Pensions, while those of the richest fifth have increased by 17 per cent. But the top fifth still enjoys incomes almost four times higher than those obtained by the bottom fifth.

So where, apart from the top end of the EU inequality league, does this leave us? Liberty and fraternity hold self-evident value, but the value of equality has become elusive. The Chancellor's concern to alleviate the lot of the poorest is consistent with a functional view of inequality, as an indicator of how many are struggling to meet basic needs. Once they are "lifted out of poverty", their position relative to the rest of society is no longer a problem. As long as the income of the poorest is adequate in absolute terms, it does not matter how many times more the richest are paid. Indeed, their gain may be welcomed as a sign that they are realising their potential.

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Critics object that exaggerated rewards make a mockery of equality of opportunity by creating barriers of capital--financial and social--that restrict admission to many parts of the elite. This argument reasserts the values of postwar social democracy, with its confidence that the broad mass of people are not so limited in potential as to make a mockery of equality of worth. …

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