The Politics Column: The Debate about How Best to Tackle Inequality Is Everywhere and It Is Precisely the Discussion the Labour Party Should Be Having
Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)
The Labour Party has rediscovered equality. Later this month the Fabian Society, the keeper of the party's soul, will publish a revised Clause Four--the symbolic statement of Labour's first principles--in an attempt to embed a commitment to making Britain "a fair and more equal society". This is an ingenious idea. The party ditched its commitment to nationalisation as the prelude to the Blair era. Now, a decade on, the Fabians argue that a Brown era should open with a similar historic rewrite of the party's constitution.
It is as well to be sceptical about Labour's new-found taste for narrowing the gap between rich and poor in society, which has widened under Labour. The government's own target, to abolish child poverty by 2020, looks likely to be missed. But those who have been calling on the party to return to its egalitarian roots should look carefully at the new Clause Four wording: "We believe that no citizen's life chances should be determined by the circumstances into which he or she is born." This is hardly revolutionary and the phrase "life chances" is an ugly one. But deep in the recesses of the Labour Party, something is stirring.
The Fabian Society is an appropriate place for the debate to take place. The original Clause Four was written in 1917 by Sidney Webb, who helped establish that organisation (as well as the London School of Economics and this magazine). In 1992, Tony Blair chose a Fabian Society pamphlet to signal his intention to rewrite the clause, arguing that the party should unite around a shared set of progressive values rather than a commitment to bringing about "the common ownership of the means of production".
The latest proposal on Clause Four comes out of a recent Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty, which recognised that while some progress had been made, it was unacceptable that 2.6 million children still lived below the poverty line. Crucially, the commission recognised that far too many people's "life chances" (by which it meant educational attainment, state of health, employment status) are determined by geography and birth. The commission is recommending that equality become the theme of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review.
The neosocialists (or new egalitarians as they prefer to call themselves) can be found in some surprising places. In fact, it is getting difficult to move for Labour politicians and wonks pushing theories on how to tackle child poverty or the underachievement of black boys or obesity among children on council estates. …