Why we have to talk about Inequality, and why even the wealthy should hate it

Since its election defeat, Labour seems to have abandoned all talk of inequality. This is a huge mistake.

Fighting inequality is the reason for Labour’s existence, its sole purpose.

Some might say that a focus on inequality will always be a losing strategy, because it is a negative message, which appeals to people’s conscience, but ignores self-interest. This is only true if the focus is on the negative effects of inequality, ignoring the huge benefits of greater equality.

However, before we talk about inequality, let’s first get this straight: Labour is against inequality, but is very much pro-business.

Labour wants a booming economy. We want a prosperous society, where businesses can be successful, but we want that success to benefit everyone, through decent employment, in good jobs, with good wages and conditions.

Labour’s job is to demonstrate that this would be better for everyone: that greater equality improves life for ALL members of our society, not just the poorest. This must be the message that we broadcast to voters, as well as the mission-statement that we live by.

Much of the criticism of Labour’s election campaign focused on the lack of clear message; that Labour had no clear story to tell voters; no overall vision for a better society, no moral mission, and no obvious ‘brand’.

The response to that criticism: Labour, is for equality

And here’s why:

It is better for all of us- including the wealthy

Whenever wellbeing is measured and compared, the more socially-democratic Nordic countries such as Sweden and Denmark always top the league tables. Why is this? Groundbreaking research featured in the ‘World Happiness Report’ (Helliwell, Layard and Sachs. 2013), and ‘The Spirit Level’ (Wilkinson and Pickett. 2009) has irrefutably shown that people are much happier and healthier in societies with more equality- and this includes the wealthy.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s research also showed that societies with high levels of inequality not only have much worse levels of physical and mental health, they also have more crime, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, more marital breakdown, more domestic violence and much less trust between people. All this affects all members of society, including the wealthy.

Greater equality comes with a greater sense of community

The previous point, regarding the lack of trust between people, is something that has bothered those on both the left and the right wings of politics, because a lack of trust indicates the loss of a sense of community, which many believe is the cause of many of our current social problems. A greater sense of community and a greater belief in equality could both be fostered by an increased understanding of our interdependence; on the fact that we all need each other- the fact that we really are ‘all in this together’ (just not in the way David Cameron imagined).

Most justifications of inequality are based on the idea that some jobs are more important than others, and require more specialised skills, so therefore they deserve higher rewards. This argument overlooks a key aspect of our economy, which is absolutely fundamental to the success of our society:

We are no longer self-sufficient.

We no longer build our own homes or grow our own food. We no longer have to be a ‘Jack of all trades’.

We have all specialised.

This has enabled our society to become technologically advanced and wealthy, because we have specialised in our roles, which has led to huge advances in all fields of human endeavour.

But what is overlooked, is this key fact: we can only specialise in our chosen fields, because we know that other people have specialised in other fields. For example: I can only specialise in teaching, because I know that someone else is farming and someone else is building houses and someone else is generating electricity etc. In order to do my job, I am completely dependent on other people doing theirs.

We are all completely dependent upon each other.

Once we understand this, it becomes difficult to justify massive wage inequality, because, as every worker depends on every other worker, this means that every job is important, therefore every job should pay a decent wage.

Wages should reflect social worth

Furthermore; if we are justifying wage inequality on the basis of importance to society, we should consider the following point: MPs are well-paid, because the job is considered to be very important to society. However, despite their importance, we are able to do without them for almost four months in every year, whilst parliament is in recess.

Now think about it; if all the minimum-waged workers who work in supermarkets decided to do the same, how would we cope? Without them doing their jobs, our society would fall apart- there would be total chaos and anarchy within a week. How is their minimum wage justified now?

We could also make many more obvious comparisons of social importance and worth: footballers versus care workers, stockbrokers versus teaching assistants, celebrities versus refuse hospital cleaners etc.

Finally, on the question of social worth; paying a living wage, rather than the minimum wage reflects the idea that all humans have equal worth and deserve a decent quality of life.

Paying a living wage would boost the economy

When wealthy people receive more money, they tend to save it, but when incomes rise for the lowest paid, they tend to spend that extra money, therefore providing a boost to the economy: a win-win situation. Conversely, when inequality worsens and wages stagnate, no-one has the money to buy consumer goods, so the economy nosedives and firms go bust. Paying a living wage makes sound economic sense.

Inequality is not inevitable

Inequality is the result of human decisions and human actions, such as weakening the power of trade unions- which the Conservatives desire to weaken even further.

Political decisions have caused greater inequality, so politicians can also create greater equality. This is the task that all Labour MPs should be focused on.

Creating a more equal society is the right thing to do

Deep down, most of us believe in greater equality, because deep down, we are all good people, right? We believe that everyone deserves equal chances in life; this is one of our core values.

Fighting inequality and creating greater equality is the right thing to do; intellectually, economically and morally.

The arguments are irrefutable, backed up by a host of respected organisations and economists: the IMF, and Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank, have highlighted the growing threat to social stability caused by increasing inequality.

So come on Labour, do the right thing. The arguments are strong, the cause is just. Let’s stand up for what we believe in and be a ‘real’ Labour Party again- let’s devote ourselves to fighting inequality.

Brian Back