Tag Archives: equality

Why Zoe Williams’ tale of Tesco subsidies only tells half the story

Zoe Williams makes a good point in the Guardian when she questions why the taxpayer effectively subsidises companies like Tesco by paying out tax credits which would be unnecessary if they paid decent wages, whilst executives reward themselves massive bonuses from the profits they make as a consequence. There is clearly something wrong here.

But she only tells half of the story.

Yes, allowing highly “profitable” companies pay low wages is a scandal, but so is artificially increasing those wages by imposing income taxes on low incomes. This is effectively a dead weight cost on labour; neither the employer or employee benefits from it. It artificially raises the minimum wage which, in turn, strengthens the hand of those who would have you believe that the national minimum wage is an unacceptable burden on employers. And it undermines Zoe’s argument; that subsidy she alleges is at least in part coming out of the very low wages she is so critical of.

For this reason, it is absolutely crucial that personal allowance is raised to ensure that, eventually, no one on a living wage should be paying income tax. The coalition government has already made a start on this, and should be encouraged to move as swiftly as possible.

It would be nice to think that such a policy measure would be entirely uncontroversial; sadly it is not. In 2010, Left Foot Forward teamed up with the Fabian Society to produce a series of articles designed to prove that such a policy was one of the least fair and most regressive policies ever devised. On the narrow point about higher income earners gaining more from the policy than lower income earners, they had a point – although their manufactured outrage rings hollow in light of the new Labour orthodoxy about sticking up for the “squeezed middle”. In any case, this could e easily solved merely by lowering the higher tax rate bracket by the same amount as the personal allowance increase, which is indeed what George Osborne has done.

But it represents a wider failure of imagination on the part of Labour thinkers; that is to restrict their definition of fairness to purely one of income distribution. I strongly agree this is an important factor, but it would be a profound mistake to make this the only fairness test in public policy. Any tax policy which has the effect of making it more affordable for employers to pay people a decent wage should be championed; the public purse should indeed be used as a safety net, but it is simply madness to create a system such as the one built by Gordon Brown in which money unduly paid out on low incomes is recycled to top up the pay of people on low incomes. This is Alice in Wonderland economics – and that is even before you consider the billions in unclaimed benefits that this shockingly complex system effectively deprives people of each year. Surely even the most staunch statist cannot rationally argue against the inland revenue butting out at this point?

In short, we have a right to expect corporations like Tesco to pay decent wages to their employees – but Tesco have a right to expect the state not to have policies in place which actively discourage them from doing so. Both the government and corporate sector need to take action here, while Labour needs to decide which side they are really on.

More BBC pro-Labour propaganda

John Rentoul is outraged that the BBC have chosen to cover the publication of the government’s new report on equality with the headline “Rich-poor divide ‘wider than 40 years ago’.” He is of course correct to point out that the main increase in inequality over the past 40 years took place during the Thatcher years.

But the Harriet Harman approved wording that he picks out of the report’s executive summary is equally misleading:

The large inequality growth between the late 1970s and early 1990s has not been reversed.

It certainly hasn’t been reversed, but that suggests that it has at leasted been reversing. The reality is somewhat different.

I would refer you, dear reader, to page 9 of the report which has a handy graph showing both the Gini coefficient and the 90/10 factor from 1961 to 2007. What this graph shows is that both measures of inequality peaked in 1991, dropped a bit as we came out of recession and then hovered around the same level in the years following. Indeed, while the 90/10 scale shows a slight dip in inequality since 1991 (to 1989’s levels), the Gini coefficient was at an all time high in 2007.

Since 2007 of course, we have had a major recession. Inequality spiked in 1991 for this reason and so we have every reason to believe it will have spiked again between 2007 and 2010. It is quite possible that both scales will exceed the 1991 levels.

So not only have Labour failed to reverse Thatcher’s increase in inequality, they’ve failed to make any impact on it at all.

The BBC should indeed change their headline. I would suggest that it reads “Rich-poor divide ‘wider than 1997′”. John Rentoul won’t like it but it would accurately reflect the real failings of this Labour government.

Why the Conservatives have been making class an issue

David Cameron and his party have been bending over backwards to tell us how petty and spiteful it is to bring class into politics.

They have a point, up to a point. Certainly the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a dreadful miscalculation by Labour – who, let us not forget, were treating the constituency as an hereditary seat and the idea of someone with the privileged background of Ed Balls claiming to be some kind of latter-day class warrior is just stupid. But regardless of how weak Labour are on the issue, the fact remains that it is primarily the Conservatives who have been making an issue of class in politics in recent years

Where do I start? Clearly there is that single, emblematic tax cut they want to give to all those who stand to gain from hereditary wealth, and in the last week there has been the eye-watering way in which Zac Goldsmith has sought to belittle his own bit of local difficulty by shrugging off a tax saving of £10,000 as if it essentially the same thing as a tenner he might lose down the back of a sofa. This was a highly charged political statement. What he was saying was: “I’m safe and I feel confident enough that I can rub my wealth in your face. What are you going to do about it?” If that isn’t making class an issue, what is?

A few weeks ago, Cameron made the highly controversial statement that what mattered was not the widening gap between rich and poor but the gap between the poor and the “middle” – if that isn’t a statement charged with class consciousness, what is? Again, the fact that Peter Mandelson has been saying essentially the same thing for the past decade and a half, doesn’t exactly help Labour provide a counterpoint to this.

The fox hunting ban is not something I feel particularly strongly about – I view anyone who takes pleasure out of the killing of a wild animal with contempt but there are good reasons for keeping the rural fox population under control and it is an issue that would be better regulated at a local government level in my view. I also feel that the ban hasn’t really worked and that for a lot of the Labour MPs who pushed it through, it really was a class issue. Rather than responding in kind, the Tories tack is instead to emphasise that this is not a class issue but a civil liberties one, whilst simultaneously announcing an intention to limit the right to protest. It is hard to see how legislating on fox hunting could be a priority for any government over the next decade, yet Cameron is determined to do so whilst simultaneously trying to mask it as some kind of march towards freedom. If they weren’t preoccupied with class, it is hard to see why they would be so determined to scrap the ban or to pretend it is about something it blatantly isn’t.

And then there’s this obsession that the Tories have had over the past decade with the social class of John Prescott and Michael Martin. The latter has been particulary interesting. All the time the Tories have been chuckling about the ineptness of “Gorbals Mick” it has emerged that the real Speaker Martin has been bending over backwards to defend the entrenched privilege of MPs – especially the wealthy ones – to trouser hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money in the form of “expenses.” He’s been their most faithful servant, and yet they have bullied him and hurled the most appalling insults at him. It is hard to look at this and not see a resemblance to arrogant Eton schoolboys behaving not like elected politicians but like people who have been born to rule. The only people who turned the expenses issue into the class issue have, consistently, been the Tories and their supporters.

And now we see Eric Pickles entering into that bear pit which is the Conservative attitude to class. Whatever you might think about Pickles, he is a politician with a track record in his own right. Yet what has happened to Pickles under Cameron? Well, he’s reinvented himself as the Tories’ answer to John Prescott. In doing so, he has adopted an avulcular, parodic working class persona which seems to have been plucked wholesale from the Beano circa 1959. Let’s be under no illusions here – this performance has precisly nothing to do with attracting the working class vote. You won’t see him playing up to the camera and mugging about his “chums” on Question Time or the Today Programme. No, it is about giving the party faithful what they want to hear on his regular emails and “war room briefings” in his role as Party Chairman. As far as they are concerned, the acceptable face of the working class appears in charming Ealing Comedies, not on housing estates. The fact that Pickles feels he has to transform himself into some kind of clown in order to keep the party masses happy speaks volumes about the view of class within the Conservatives. Frankly, I await the day before Pickles starts one of his war room briefings with an establishing shot of him showing his prize pet ferret around CCHQ, with all the bright young things around him cooing and stroking the creature. It is only a matter of time, trust me on this.

In short, the one party still obsessed with class in this country are the Conservatives. Frankly, it would be nice if there were a bit more class consciousness within the other two main parties.

(On a personal note, it isn’t that I don’t want to live in a classless, divided society, I really do. It’s just that it is painfully obvious to me that I don’t live in one and that we need to be talking about this much more.)

David Cameron’s vision of a McSociety

Many people will have blogged already about David Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture by now, but as I saw it being delivered live, I thought I ought to add my two-penneth.

My first observation was the eagerness that Cameron was to please his Guardianista audience. This is actually the second speech I’ve seen Cameron give in person and it was true when he delivered his speech to the Power Inquiry Conference back in 2006. Certainly he spent a significant amount of time couching what he had to say in fluffy, leftish language and he went down the usual list of name checks to keep everyone happy. That said, there was some meat in what he had to say which should trouble anyone of a left persuasion.

If the reaction to Cameron’s conference speech last month is anything to go by, there are almost certainly some out there saying that this was a speech that Clegg should have made. And in terms of some of the rhetoric, that is certainly true. Indeed, some of the rhetoric was actually borrowed from Clegg. Does this sound familiar to you?

Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life.

I’m not convinced it amounted to a convincing whole however, or that it was especially well thought out.

Income Inequality

Two of the first names he was to check were Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and indeed he went on to summarise the whole Spirit Level thesis. For a second this sounded quite exciting – a Tory government committed to reducing income inequality would be something to see. But before we could get our hopes up too high, he went and threw it all away:

We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom.

Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

Shares of total household income by quintile group
Shares of total household income by quintile group
Dowhatnow? This simple graph from the Office of National Statistics shows clearly quite how problematic a focus on comparing the poorest incomes with the middle is. As a proportion, the incomes of the middle earners have actually gone down as a proportion over the last thirty years. True the gap between the poorest and the middlest has widened, but only because the poorest have done even worse. You could of course reverse this trend by ensuring that the poorest’s share of the national wealth started declining more slowly than the share of the middle incomers – while the top 20 per cent continued to rake it home.

The other thing you’ll see from this graph is that the reduction in the bottom 60 per cent’s share of national wealth started in 1979. Funny how all these problems that Cameron has summed up with the phrase “Broken Britain” – marriage breakdown, anti-social behaviour, etc. – all seemed to start to exacerbate around then. I suppose it is just possible that the problem was that as the middle got poorer, the poorest got poorer still, but I think it probably has something more to do with the top quintile’s incomes shooting up at everyone else’s expense. That is certainly Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis. Isn’t it funny therefore that in summing up the history of the welfare state, Cameron develops a narrative that starts in the early 30s, progresses through to the War and the founding of the welfare state, reaches 1968… and then zooms forward to 1997. Move along, nothing to see here.

I think I know where this focus on the “middle” comes from. I suspect that Cameron has been reading the same research I have been this summer which suggests that everyone seems to think they earn an average amount. By developing a policy which effectively lets off the top 40% – most of whom assume they are earning only slightly more than average and who will be scared off by talk of actual redistribution – Cameron gets to wear progressive clothes without having to promise any of the pain to the wealthy that goes along with it. It is entirely about playing into the hands of people’s prejudices and salving their consciences. It is less clear what any of it has to do with reducing poverty of social problems.

The Big State

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s equation of “big state” with “means testing”. Suffice to say, it is nonsense. If you want to get rid of means testing, you have two choices: spend more and create universal benefits or cut those benefits all together. If you do the former then you end up with a “bigger” state. If you do the latter then you shrink the safety net and make the poorest poorer – something which Cameron claims to oppose.

The tax credit system designed by Gordon Brown is a classic example of his doctrine of progressivism by stealth – and a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. The benefit to the poorest is reduced by creating an incredibly complex system and disincentives to work. From the chancellor’s point of view however it is great because it is relatively cheap.

Of course, aside from slamming these disincentives, Cameron has nothing to say about how they should be actually reformed. He wants to increase them for married couples – to bring them in line with single parents – yet surely this would just lead to more welfare dependency (and a larger state), not less? He wants to focus Sure Start on the poorest families – yet surely this suggests more means testing, not less? He wants a pupil premium, but unless he is proposing to pay for it by cutting investment in schools elsewhere, that too would suggest a bigger state. With the exception of making employment benefits and employment services dependent on payment by results, in almost every area Cameron seemed to be calling for both more means testing and more investment.

The Big Society

In the final section of his speech on the “Big Society”, the role of the state seemed to grow still further.

This section was the most intriguing. His argument was that the left want to grow the size of the state while the right want a larger and more vibrant civic society. Is that really the case though? It certainly seems to me that most of the civic republicans throughout history have been on the left, not the right. Even when Cameron talked wistfully about “the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another” he listed “the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” – most of which have their roots in the left and was careful not to mention rather more problematic forms of “mutual aid” such as the workhouses. Throughout the 80s and 90s the Tories were all too eager to see the co-operatives and building societies demutualised. He could also have mentioned trade unions – a system of mutual aid which the Tories have and continue to attack – and mass membership political parties – the club of which the Conservatives only joined in 1999.

In short, yet again, there is a whole narrative here that Cameron left out: that being the sustained attack of the “strong society” waged by the Tories between 1979 and 1997. Tories get terribly upset when you mention that famous quote by Margaret Thatcher, but her actions spoke louder than words. And Cameron’s failure to address this was deafening.

Cameron now recognises there is a role for the state in rebuilding that strong civic culture – and this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m not so sure about what he plans to do however.

His three pronged approach lies in “identifying and working directly with the social entrepreneurs”, “engaging with community activists” and developing “a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.” None of this seems especially well thought out and sounds remarkably similar to the sort of thing Blair was saying in the late 90s. Why should we assume that Cameron’s vagueness will go on to become any more concrete than Blair’s?

What’s more, two phrases set my alarm bells ringing. The first was his suggestion that the state should “franchise” proven social programmes. After EasyBarnet we have McSociety. Can you really reduce every civic minded venture down to a manual and a uniform? Surely, by definition, these initiatives defy mass production? Plenty of organisations have attempted to spread themselves out over the years – what will bad old government be able to do that the social entrepreneurs themselves can’t?

The franchise model seems entirely inappropriate to social enterprises. It suggests a by the numbers approach when what is needed is a careful application of fairly universal organising principles to specific local circumstances. And in what way will these franchises differ from quangoes, those bete noires of the modern Conservative Party? They sound pretty quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisational to me.

The other aspect of all this that made me uncomfortable was Cameron’s vision of social engineering. Of course he didn’t use that term as it is seen as perjorative, but how else do you sum up this “nudge” theory of establishing social norms? Much of what he had to say about developing a broader culture of social engagement seemed to be focused not on creating active citizens but on creating good ones.

It is hard to see what this three week long “National Citizens’ Service” will achieve other than telling “good” 16 year olds how to behave while trying to stop the “bad” kids from sneaking off. What good is three weeks? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting citizenship education right in schools, from 5-18?

Ultimately, can’t we think of a better summary of the sort of stronger society we want to create than the largely tautological “responsibility, mutuality and obligation”? What about interest? What about curiosity? And can any of this be achieved without, at the heart of it, a culture rooted in egalitarianism?

Overall then, what Cameron leaves out in this speech is as interesting as what he actually says. And at the heart of what he does have to say is a profound oxymoron: stronger societies tend to be egalitarian ones precisely because that sense of “them versus us” is diminished. Yet while Cameron recognises the need for a stronger society, he cannot bring himself to embrace equality. And having denied himself a pretty crucial tool to rebuild the “broken” society, the only thing he has left seems to be yet more state intervention.

It is a pretty hollow analysis.

Will Lembit have me arrested?

I’ve just updated Prawn Free Lembit with Mr Opik’s latest column from the Daily Sport and it has put me in a bit of a quandary.

You see, by posting that column, I’m breaching copyright. I’m a pretty good boy when it comes to copyright violation generally – unusually for my generation even where music is concerned – but I set up Prawn Free Lembit because I thought these columns ought to see the light of day outside of the confines of a porn-infested and frankly medieval website that doesn’t even have RSS feeds. He’s an elected politician and I think we all have a right to know what he has to say without having degrading images of women shoved in our faces, don’t you think? I don’t editorialise and let Lembit speaks for himself. If it leads to people asking awkward questions about why a man in his forties who owns a pair of trousers would spend a significant part of his working week perving about which “Sport Stunna” he’d like to “elevate” to “high office” (f’narr!), then that’s on him.

However noble my intentions may have been however, it is clear that Lembit has a very black and white view of the matter. Breach of copyright is “theft”, pure and simple. He has lent his support to Peter Mandelson’s plan to cut off people who are caught filesharing illegally and presumably the rozzers will be knocking on my door any minute.

The arguments about why Mandelson’s plans are utterly bogus have been well rehearsed. While I wouldn’t go quite as far as those who favour legalising peer-to-peer filesharing in all circumstances, the government’s disconnection plans would punish the innocent, be impractical in practice and fundamentally miss the point.

The music industry is in the mess that it is in for a very simple reason. It has filched the public and recording artists for decades. This was possible to get away with 20 years ago because technology and IP laws made it easy for them. As a result they could live it large, ply their musicians and useful dupes with drugs and alcohol and indulge their megastars. When the internet came along, instead of waking up to its potential threat to them and adapting, they pretended it didn’t exist for decades. The result was utter contempt by the general public which fuelled the rise of peer-to-peer once the technology came up to speed.

The death of the music industry – which is a real possibility – will not mean the death of music. Music existed before copyright laws and it will exist long after them as well. People won’t suddenly stop making music. What it will probably mean is the death of the superstar. Your online music store will resemble a public library more than HMV. Instead of having a middle man around who decides what music is worth listening to and what category it should be wedged into, we’ll be able to choose from a much wider source. Technology will (has) made garage bands sound as professional as the big labels and marketing costs have levelled out. The Simon Cowells of this world are utterly fucked, which is why his himself has already jumped ship and moved onto TV – and even then the X-Factor band wagon won’t keep rolling forever.

Will it be possible to make money as a musician in the future? It all depends on what your aspirations are. Any halfway successful musician will be able to make several multiples of what I’ll earn in my lifetime, but there’ll be a lot fewer multi-millionaires. You probably won’t ever get that private jet I’m afraid. The simple fact are only so many punters out there and talent is nothing like as hard to come by as Smash Hits and NME led us to believe. They lied.

But is rendering musician to the status of mere vocation such a terrible thing? Money has destroyed so many talents over the years that it is hard to shed a tear for the decline of the superstar. Is it really so wonderful that popular music has become so strongly associated with excess, mental illness, vanity, self-abasement and violence? More musicians earning less money is a scenario in which 99% of us win. It is no coincidence that Wilkinson and Pickett considered a move towards less restrictive IP laws as a crucial step towards engendering a more equal culture in The Spirit Level.

The reason I suspect Lembit does not see it that way is that it is not music he is really defending but the industry which he has courted and been courted by (and indeed courted within) for the past decade.

Oh, and as I have thus far forgotten to post the latest edition of The Show, courtesy of EyeSeeSound.tv, allow me to do so here. It’s the future!

Quality of Life (3) – Communities, Activities and Mental Health

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

16. How can we actively promote ‘good neighbour’ policies?
Noting that word “actively” my response is that we shouldn’t. More equal societies tend to be more trusting societies but I’m not sure there’s much we can or should do to force people to be good neighbours.

The one thing we could do is scrap all legislation that is designed to tackle this thing called “anti-social behaviour.” Criminal behaviour is a different matter, but we need to avoid giving people the impression that it is the role of the state to intervene when it comes to naughty or irritating behaviour.

Another thing that might help would be to move away from gated communities and sprawling housing estates and promote mixed housing wherever possible. I simply can’t see what will stop people from drifting apart on socio-economic lines however if we don’t have some way of discouraging it via, say a land value tax system (i.e. you can have that gated community if you are willing to pay wider society for the privilege).

17. Should government provide greater financial support for community activities – community spaces, clubs, other collective activities? Should it provide other support? If so, what?

Again, rather than doing more it might be an idea if government did less. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is an example of an interference too far in this respect.

18. Should we try to increase significantly the status of those who carry out voluntary activities? If so, how? Should some kind of honours or rewards system play a role? If we increased the status of these activities, would we reduce the stigma attached to unemployment?

If something is rewarded it ceases to be voluntary. I certainly believe that unemployed people should be encouraged – and certainly not be penalised – for doing voluntary work. Perhaps we could combine job centres with time banks (but if Mrs Miggins can’t leave her home, how will she notify the job centre that she needs her shopping done?).

Ultimately though, we don’t want “voluntary” work to be restricted to unemployed people because they have nothing better to do. If we want to avoid such volunteering to lose status as more unemployed people take it up, we have to find ways to encourage employed people to participate too.

I can’t see that there is much national government can do however. The answer, surely, is decentralisation and allow local government to experiment.

19. How can we ensure everyone, including people of diverse ages, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ability is included and welcome in the life of their community? How do we combat prejudice while respecting difference?

This is like the “good neighbours” question. I’m not sure there is anything active we can do about this at all. What we need is to break down barriers, which is why I think mixed communities are crucial.

20. Watching large amounts of TV is a major contributor to lower wellbeing. What is the right Liberal Democrat approach to discouraging or limiting it?

We need to make our minds up. Either British TV is the best in the world and a public service, or it is trash that we should discourage people from watching.

TV is on the decline and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet. This may be a problem that is solving itself as mass media becomes more interactive.

The simplest way to discourage poor people from watching television is to replace the licence fee with subscription television. That way, a number of people – especially older people – will be priced out of watching. But if my grandmother is anything to go by, Eastenders and Countdown are a great comfort to them. Taking the goggle box away from them is certainly unlikely to be popular.

21. How do we combat loneliness, and in particular the isolation of the elderly?

Again, more mixed communities and a more equal society will help.

I’m actually relatively optimistic about this for the future. I strongly suspect this will be much less of a problem for my generation in old age as we will have the internet and a range of opportunities to explore our interests and long distance relationships (assuming climate change hasn’t sent us back to the stone age of course). Even my parents’ generation will have made strides towards this.

22. Should more public money be spent on improving the appearance of local areas?

Again, that is a local matter. Are we talking broken windows theory here? Certainly I can see a case for local authorities responding to vandalism as quickly as possible. But once again, if young people lived in a more equal society where they felt like stakeholders instead of trespassers we would probably see less vandalism.

23. How should government be involved in promoting good mental health?

Greater experts than me will, I’m sure, make specific suggestions. Again I feel the need to point out that the evidence suggests that more equal societies face fewer mental health problems.

24. How can we use education to enhance public understanding about mental health issues?

I certainly would not support adding yet another clause to the national curriculum. If people were taught critical thinking more in schools, it would almost certainly help as they would be less prone to prejudice and I would be happy to see whole swathes of curriculum trashed to make way for this to be on the core syllabus.

Ultimately however, we should leave teachers to get on with it and encourage them to learn from each other.

25. If we make mental health treatment a much higher priority for government spending – do we spend more on health or make cut-backs elsewhere?

This sounds like a false dichotomy to me. Mental health appears to be linked to physical health problems – it thus follows that more investment in the former will lead to savings in the latter.

26. How do drugs and alcohol impact on mental health? What should government do to reduce demand or supply?

Not a lot. We need to be treating people when they’re down not treading on them.

The experience in places such as the Netherlands is that decriminalising drugs leads to a reduction in usage simply because people get less trapped in the criminal justice system. Alcohol is a more intractable problem and alcohol abuse seems to be more a symptom of wider problems than a problem in itself.

How do we deal with that? Empowering local authorities to take a firmer grasp of their licensing policies would be a start. Designing pubs so that they cater more for talking and families and are less Viking drinking halls would help too.

One idea might be to lower the drinking age on real ale and wine in pubs (to 16?), while retaining the 18 age for things like spirits, alco-pops, cider and lager. I’m serious. If we encouraged young people to acquire a taste for proper alcoholic drinks they would be less tempted to blag things like Bacardi Breezers that taste like soft drinks and promote binge drinking. As a positive by-product, it would also help local breweries.

Quality of Life (1) – Introduction

I’ve got out of the habit of blogging my responses to the Lib Dem policy consultation papers of late but the Quality of Life one caught my eye and I thought I’d have a stab at it.

My overall response is that, while I applaud the party for wanting to tackle this issue and personally consider it to be very important, the direction that the consultation paper is taking somewhat concerns me. Unlike some, I don’t think this is an area where government should not intervene, but it needs to be realistic about what it can achieve and it would be better off taking fewer, more strategic decisions than attempting to meddle with every little issue.

I’m also increasingly coming to the conclusion that equality and quality of life are flipsides of the same coin (it is no coincidence that most people who disregard the former also dismiss the latter). To tackle one is to tackle the other, and vice versa. Having entirely seperate consultations on the two areas – the equality consultation begins at the next conference – is to a certain extent redundant.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my response. I will try to contain my comments to the questions in the paper (although such questions always irritate me so I am bound to drift off topic):

1. Should government be more concerned to increase their citizens’ wellbeing than their wealth? What is the proper role of government in promoting quality of life?

The answer to the first question is most definitely yes, but few would subscribe to the notion that wealth and wellbeing are entirely unrelated. Having recently read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, some of the most compelling charts they print in that book are the ones where they compare the GDP of countries with life expectency (page 7) and happiness (page 9). What these charts show are that GDP, life expectency and happiness are related up to a certain point (around $25,000 per capita) and then level off. From that point onward, equality becomes a more defining factor.

So my tentative answer to the second question is that the role of government is to foster a political economy that is both healthy and where people are relatively equal. But it is absolutely crucial that the way we achieve that equality is itself equitable.

2. Should governments concentrate on minimising misery rather than augmenting happiness? If so, do they need to do more or less?

This is a bit of a silly question. I would answer that our goal should be more about “minimising misery” than “augmenting happiness” since the latter sounds a bit too Brave New World for my taste. But I’m not entirely convinced that the government should be especially concerned with either per se.

I’ve always been wary of the term “happiness” and its utilitarian ties. I understand that a lot of people use happiness and well-being as interchangeable terms but this question somewhat suggests that the author is thinking of happiness in rather more simplistic terms.

There are a variety of things we should be seeking to maximise: liberty, self-confidence, trust in society, questioning of authority, a sense of being in control of one’s life (indeed, I don’t think you can have the former without the latter four – others disagree). These are things we should be concerning ourselves with, not gross “happiness”.

3. Are the ways our public services work detrimental to our quality of life?

In a lot of ways, yes. Far too often they undermine our need for self-control, demand unquestioning obedience and assume that society is a dark and sinister place. They need to be as transparent, accountable and democratic as possible and controlled at the lowest possible level.

4. What additional or alternative indicators should government use in place of GDP?

There are lots of different indicators we could use. The debate about alternative indicators has been going on for at least as long as I’ve been involved in politics. It hasn’t got very far, partially because I think it misses the point.

I have a far stronger indicator for the state of the economy than GDP. It’s called the Maltesers Index. I’ve noticed that over the last six months, an increasing number of shops I walk into are trying to flog me packets of sweets at discount prices. Borders appear to have forgotten that their main trade is in books. The last time I walked into a WH Smiths you could barely reach the counter for all the bargain bins of confectionary they had put in front of it. I have a fairly good understanding of the economics of why that is, but I wouldn’t want the MI to guide national policy for the simple fact that the government could massively improve their figures by banning Maltesers. This wouldn’t actually help the economy – it would make things worse. What’s more I like Maltesers.

We can find all sorts of measurements, but they will always be open to abuse because they are prone to being gamed. What’s more, they have to feel real to people. Two major quality of life indicators have dominated public policy for decades – reported crime and the British Crime Survey – yet they are rarely referred to as such. Politicians tend to emphasise whichever of the two figures that are more helpful to them (in my view the BCS is better but it isn’t without its flaws) and the result is that we tend to distrust both of them. You could say the same about unemployment figures.

The fact is, government measures lots of things. We could measure a few more things but I’m not convinced it will change much. The best indicator in my book is the record of votes cast for whom in each election. We should try having an electoral system that reflects it at some point.

5. People are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life. What role should government play here? What happens if our liberal commitments to equality and freedom of choice appear to conflict with our desire to enable to enjoy a good quality of life?

This is a question that is crying out for a “for instance”. The simple answer is “it depends.”

Yes, people are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life, but governments are too. I’m not convinced that the solution is for the government to step in and meddle with every single solution. We need the government to be looking at more strategic shifts. This is why, for me, equality is such a big deal. The evidence before us suggests that by managing this shift, we could improve a whole range of social and health indicators in a way that hundreds of government programmes have been unable to match.

For the most part, the role of government should be to mitigate bad personal choices, not to prevent them. That of course brings in the question of moral hazard and there should certainly be a cost for making mistakes. But that isn’t the same thing as letting people rot.

Drugs policy is an excellent example. We know that taking drugs such as cocaine and heroin is generally not a very good idea, leading to addiction, the risk of overdose and mental health issues. Yet all attempts to restrict this choice have backfired. Yet all the experiments involving legalisation to one degree or another suggest that such an approach leads to fewer social problems and even less drug useage. Part of the lesson here is that by allowing people to make wrong choices and picking them up off the floor when they do, we enable them to make right choices in future instead of getting stuck in a cycle of desperation and criminality.

The real challenge to freedom of choice is the much cited tragedy of the commons, but I’m not convinced that simply removing choice or even costing in externalities will be the solution. Apart from anything else, such moves are not popular and the parties that propose easy solutions are the ones that tend to win at the ballot box. Mark van Vugt wrote an interesting article in New Scientist a couple of weeks ago challenging this and proposing an alternative approach, suggesting four “i”s: information, identity, institutions and incentives. Ultimately, if individual choices tend to be flawed then it is the role of the state to help inform those choices. In the longer term that will be more effective.

The dreaded spectre of the straw Fabian

Liberator has marked the launch of the Social Liberal Forum with two articles which they have kindly allowed us to republish – one by SLF Director Matthew Sowemimo and the other by Federal Policy Committee member and writer David Boyle.

David is a different kind of critic from someone like Charlotte Gore. Very much “one of us,” he wrote a chapter in Reinventing the State and I’ve worked with him on a number of projects over the years, including a motion on participatory democracy that was debated at Autum Conference last year. So the fact that he is a sceptic is a real disappointment. Having said that, I do think he could have picked a better argument.

His problem with the SLF stems not from anything on our website, or anything Matthew or Richard Grayson have written (I seem to have been written out of the equation, being a mere flunky), but from a presentation made by a staffer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies at the Reinventing the State breakout session at the party’s LSE conference on social mobility in January before the SLF had launched. I didn’t attend that session as I was at a parallel one at the time, but David’s concern stems from the IFS chap’s definition of equality. This then moves into an all out assault on Fabianism.

He is right to warn against defining equality too narrowly or adopting technocratic solutions, but I’m not clear how either are really concerns about the SLF as opposed to the debate within the left more broadly. It is a bit of a leap, from the personal views of a guest speaker at an event before the organisation is launched to Beatrice Webb to concluding that the SLF is in danger of endorsing state socialism. By not reflecting on anything the SLF has actually done or put out thus far it does feel as if a number of straw men are being laid at our door.

The biggest straw man is the one that vaguely resembles Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabian-bashing is a time honoured liberal pastime and one which I indulge in myself from time to time. And why wouldn’t you, when people like Beatrice Webb offer us such a wealth of infamous quotes to cite? Even Labour apparatchik Philip Collins tried this line of attack in Prospect last year. But if you think that new Labour state socialism stems from the modern Fabian Society, you are dead wrong. Indeed, the modern Fabian Society’s favourite Lib Dem-bashing tactic at the moment is to denounce us for not supporting asset-based welfare (the specific criticism that we plan reallocate resources away from Labour’s tokenistic Child Trust Fund is rather fatuous but more generally, I think they have a point more generally). I am pretty certain that Sunder Katwala being the Fabian Society’s General Secretary is a fact that has both the Webbs spinning in their graves.

And finally, while I would agree that income-inequality – and even consumption-inequality – should never be the only measure, David risks understating its importance. He is right to say that we won’t ever solve the underlying problems of inequality with charts and targets. David wrote a fantastic book in 2001 called The Tyranny of Numbers which forecast the failure of the New Labour project before most people were getting their heads around it, but the conclusion I took from it wasn’t that we must never count things – merely that we understand the limitations of statistics. Indeed, David’s own think tank, the New Economics Foundation (of which I am also a supporter), is continually coming up with new ways to measure social progress. It is an odd charge to suggest the SLF is enamoured by “the fantasies of Fabianism” while not applying the same standard to NEF.

While I think SLF has already avoided two of David’s potential pitfalls – centralisation and education – I will readily admit that the other two – snobbery and passivity – are tougher nuts to crack. But they are for everyone. How do you ensure universal entitlement without creating an inflexible, impersonal system? How do you ensure a flexible, personalised service without giving the articulate middle-classes an advantage over less well off? Unlike state socialists or libertarians, the social liberal doesn’t have the luxury of picking a side in this debate. But please don’t assume that acknowledging the need for one doesn’t automatically assume a dismissal of the other.

Why class still matters

There have been a series of articles in the Guardian over the past week that have made it clear that class is still a very real issue and demands a Liberal Democrat response.

First, John Harris wrote about the impact of right to buy on Tuesday. Then, Felicity Lawrence wrote about the politics behind Jamie Oliver’s new Ministry of Food. Finally, today Jon Henley wrote about smoking, and how people on low incomes remain resistant to attempts to persuade people to kick the habit. It strikes me all these issues are linked.

Taking John Harris first, I don’t share this romantic vision of sprawling 1960s era housing estates draining the coffers of local government (“when I were a lad, this were all sprawling council estate”), but I well recognise the problems of landlordism (*ahem*). What is interesting about Harris’ article is his description of how the positive side of right to buy that was very clear in the mid-90s – where, as he said, you could tell which houses where privately owned and which were council run simply by looking at which ones had the hanging baskets or had been painted relatively recently – has given way to a culture of buy to rent. The nice homes have been sold, their occupants have moved either abroad or to the country, and their homes are being filled with economic migrants. Local people aren’t getting a look in and with no new council houses being built they have extremely limited options. As we have seen in Dagenham, this is fertile ground on which the BNP can build their lies and half-truths.

In student areas, such as Headingley in Leeds where I used to work and Fallowfield in Manchester where I lived as a student, the result has not been ethnic ghettos (although there are plenty of those in Leeds and Manchester) but student ghettos. What these areas have in common is that the toxic mix of right-to-buy and buy-to-let has atomised – or more accurately stratified – local communities. Our cities have curdled like milk, with the rich clumping together in gated communities. Council housing won’t solve that problem by itself (indeed it pre-existed council housing, albeit not to this extreme), because the problem with that is rooted in our exaggerated land values which we allow people to speculate on not because of who owns the property.

Buying back properties owned solely for investment purposes and building on land with inflated values is a very expensive way of levelling the playing field, but with no senior politician prepared to look seriously at taxing land values (nice to see Polly Toynbee on board with that particular issue), it may be the only thing we can do. Meanwhile the cost of housing will continue to price our own workforce out of a job and favour economic migrants willing to spend a couple of years sleeping on floors in the UK in order to better their families’ lot. You can’t blame them, but there is little to be gained from expanding our own underclass.

Jamie Oliver’s programme dealt with fundamentally the same problem but from a different angle. Instead of housing, his concern is – not surprisingly – food. Oliver has an agenda to get Britain eating more healthily. In 2005 he set out to transform school dinners successfully (although it should be pointed out that Lib-Lab controlled Scotland was way ahead of him), although this in turn lead to a backlash. That backlash lead him to ringleader Julie Critchlow and the town she lives in – Rotherham.

In order to get Rotherham eating more healthily, Oliver’s plan is simple – teach eight “can’t cook, won’t cook” local residents the basics of cooking but on the strict understanding that they will undertake to pass the recipes they learn on to two of their friends, who are then to pass the recipes on to another two and so on, until the whole of Rotherham is cooking. If that sounds like a nice idea in theory that doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of succeeding, on the basis of the first programme you are correct. By the end of the first episode (I’m blogging instead of watching part two), even the most enthusiastic of his eight trainees are flagging.

Oliver’s mistake is hardly unique. It is the problem common to anyone who is convinced that policy makers need only concern themselves with equality of opportunity and “meritocracy” as opposed to outcomes. The theory goes that if you give people the right training and opportunities, they will run with it – unless they are lazy and feckless and not worth bothering with. At several points in the programme, you can see Oliver wrestle with that idea. To his credit, he is prepared to try to understand, but watching him listen to explain why, at the end of a long day at work, they lack the energy to leap in the kitchen and rustle up a meal, you can see it really grates against his whole outlook on life. Thatcher has a lot to answer for.

As is the nature of such “reality” television programmes, they have cherry-picked some pretty extreme examples of individuals who can’t cook, including an unemployed mother of two who feeds her kids kebabs on the floor every evening and has never so much as boiled an egg in her life despite having a fitted kitchen. What is clear though is that the problem is more than simply educational; as Oliver acknowledges but perhaps does not internalise, the problem is actually cultural and deeply ingrained. That won’t be solved by a few cooking lessons.

It isn’t to say his initiative is a wasted exercise (although if he really does want to get millions of people cooking he should probably consider producing a 99p version of his £25 book), just that it can only scratch the surface.

This is reinforced by Jon Henley’s article. Independently, I drew remarkably similar conclusions to Darrell G on Moments of Clarity. We appear to have come up with an anti-smoking policy that has proven to be remarkably effective at stopping you smoking – so long has you happen to be well educated, well housed and on a good income. If you are from a lower socio-economic background all it appears to be doing is eating up a bigger slice of your income and leaving you even more addicted. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

“One of the things that means, says Jarvis, “is that if you’re a poor smoker you’re going to want to maximise the ‘hit’ you get from each cigarette, because it represents a larger chunk of your income. The amount of nicotine you can get from each cigarette is very elastic; it depends how hard you puff, how deeply you inhale, how much of the cigarette you smoke.” Across all age groups, and even if they smoke the same number of cigarettes, poorer smokers take in markedly more nicotine that wealthier ones. “Smokers in lower socio-economic groups,” says Jarvis, “are addicted to a higher hit. Their nicotine addiction is stronger.

I have to admit, that gave me a “what the fuck are we doing?” moment. Sheesh – maybe John Reid was right. Unlike Jon Henley, I’m less than sanguine about the progress we’ve made in reducing smoking because it seems to have increased inequality. This is skirting dangerously close to Morlock / Eloi territory.

But it is also silly to say that we should never have made smoking a public health issue and settled for a less healthy but more “equal” society. And the theory advanced by some libertarians that any political party that became pro-smoking would instantly become massively popular is pie in the sky as well and not backed up by any evidence. It isn’t that poor people want to smoke; its that they live tough lives that make them prone to dependency. It is the same underlying problem that Jamie Oliver identifies. It’s about quality of life, but fundamentally it is about economics.

Most studies I’ve seen suggest that social mobility is now going in reverse after a half-century of progress. If that is the case, and our society is becoming rigidly stratified once again, then despite the “classless society” platitudes of the 1990s, it is time we started talking about class. In this respect, I pay credit to Nick Clegg for forcing the agenda on the pupil premium. We need more of that sort of approach.

On Equality

Last week I got some flak for stating that I support “equality” as a guiding principle. Indeed, in Andy Mayer’s case it turned into a full scale onslaught. Church of Leftology? Where did all that come from? Never has so much been read into the use of one little word. I’ve been meaning to return to the subject all week and have struggled to fit it in with, among other things, blogging about the Huhne interview, but it looks as if I finally have a chance.

What I aim to spell out in this article is that support for the narrow ideals of “meritocracy” and “equality of outcome” at the exclusion of equality in the round is inconsistent with the Liberal Democrats’ stated goals, with liberalism more widely and is ultimately riddled with contradiction.

The first point is easy. I need only quote the Liberal Democrat Preamble:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

That’s a pretty bald statement and it’s written on every single membership card. In the almost 20 years of the party no-one, as far as I’m aware, has ever lobbied to have this statement changed. In short, if you don’t support equality, you don’t support the principles of the Liberal Democrats. The End.

But while that may well be true, it is insufficient. It could be that all this proves is that the Liberal Democrats are not a true liberal party, but rather a rough halfway house between a liberal party and a social democratic one (which in one sense of course happens to be true). Is “true” liberalism therefore incompatible with Liberal Democrat values?

In a sense I suspect it depends on whether you consider yourself to be a social liberal or a classical liberal. In Reinventing the State, David Howarth however makes the point that even David Laws is a social liberal, albeit a “minor” one. Let’s look at a number of policy areas and explore whether the Liberal Democrat line leans more towards equality or equality of opportunity/meritocracy.

First of all, a simple one: democracy itself. Not only does the party believe in universal suffrage, it believes in a fair voting system. These ideals are rooted in equality, not equality of opportunity. We don’t argue that everyone should have an opportunity to have a vote. We have a real concern (don’t we?) about the fact that under first-past-the-post the value of your vote varies enormously depending on where you happen to live. We don’t limit ourselves to being concerned about everyone having the opportunity to live in a marginal constituency. We want all constituencies, ideally, to be marginal.

What about another absolute: human rights. Do we argue for a meritocratic rights system, where only the “deserving” have rights? This isn’t totally absurd question: a number of people in the Labour Party, including Home Office Minister Tony McNulty, do. The Conservatives want to tear up the Human Rights Act but they are happy to remain signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights – under such a system everyone would have the opportunity to exercise their rights. Do we agree with them? I don’t think so.

Do we think the police should only answer calls of distress from people with a clean criminal record? Do we think the health service should only be available to people who don’t smoke and stick to their ideal body weight (again not a completely hypothetical question as this issue does crop up time and again)?

Education is a thornier issue. Some Conservatives support Grammar Schools; David Cameron blathers on about “Grammar streaming”. Obviously the whole point of doing exams is that you have achieved some standard of merit. But is the Pupil Premium about equality of opportunity or a system of positive discrimination? If we were a party purely concerned with opportunity and meritocracy, how would such an idea not merely be policy but manage to get through our party conference with barely a squeak of opposition?

It strikes me that not only could you not maintain a liberal position while holding to a strict philosophy of equality of opportunity, you would get stuck into a mire of contradictions. As a philosophy it doesn’t tell you where to draw the line. At what point do you give up on people? At what point do you insist on leveling the playing field? At the genetic and embryological stage? At the toddler? The teenager? It’s rooted in the idea that there is a point in everyone’s life that you can point to, make sure the inequalities are addressed there, and then leave people to go off on their merry way without having to worry about what happens next.

The problem with such an approach is that there is no internal critique. As such it is all too easy to slip into complacency. Andy Mayer for example is extremely quick to write people off:

But there are entrenched privileges that are ‘unequal’ but not ‘unfair’. Looks, brains, talent, aptitude etc.

Sure there are fundamental differences in our genetic code, but there is a huge danger in exaggerating them. We know for example that identical twins, with different upbringings can end up having extremely different “looks, brains, talent, aptitude, etc.” (notice how imprecise all these differentials are). We understand – don’t we? – the danger of drawing wild conclusions about genetic difference, following the publication of spurious books such as the Bell Curve. From my reading of the nature versus nurture debate, at best the jury it out on which is the main steer; if anything nurture and the external environment appears to be winning through. You can’t ultimately answer a scientific issue through political philosophy; if the latter is to be meaningful it must be informed by the former.

Most meritocrats within the Lib Dems have leapt onto the issue of education as his point at which everything will fall into place. They are certainly correct that this is one of the most important areas that maximise equality of opportunity, but if you think that a good secondary education alone will set people up for life, you are sadly mistaken.

For example, I work in the public policy sector. I’m very conscious of the fact that small organisations like my own use internships to help bolster what we can do. The only reason why people do internships is because it gives them valuable experience and helps get them paid work. Yet people without access to free accommodation and board within London can’t afford to do internships. Result? The public policy sector is disproportionately filled with people from stable middle class backgrounds based in London and the South East. The best state supplied education in the world won’t change that fact, and the same rule applies to a whole range of white collar professions.

Andy Mayer and others have been very keen to attack my apparent support for “equality of outcome”. In fact this is the first time I’ve written that dread phrase on this blog. Equality of outcome is just as narrow and problematic a philosophy as equality of opportunity; if you solely concern yourself with outcomes you will only ever level down. But that does not mean you shouldn’t be concerned about equality of outcome. And it is here that Andy Mayer goes a bit bonkers. In attacking Duncan Brack’s writings on equality, he says the following:

Duncan Brack’s many magnus opi on this have attempting to obfuscate that clarity by claiming inequality in itself is such a barrier, particularly in respect of non-material matters such as happiness or life-expectancy…. or ‘I can’t ever be happy because you’re better looking than me’.

But it’s a circular argument. Inequality matters because it matters, therefore we must redistribute for the sake of redistribution.

This is a complete travesty of what Duncan has written. Duncan’s argument in Reinventing the State and elsewhere has been to look at the international evidence, observe that for example more equal societies tend to have lower incidences of crime and higher life expectancy and ask why. At no point does Mayer suggest that this leads to wrong conclusions, merely that it shouldn’t be looked at at all. Then, by way of misdirection, he starts raising the spectre of the Soviet Union, pointing out that the crime level there was low.

But the Soviet Union, as any casual viewer would attest, was not an equal society. While it espoused equality, the reality was quite different. While large sections of society were equally poor, they didn’t have equal rights or equal status. Duncan Brack doesn’t refer to the Soviet Union at all; so how is it relevant?

Mayer’s leap is to assume that a concern about equality of outcome is the same thing as pursuing equality of outcome at the expense of everything else. Yet no-one in the party as far as I’m aware has ever argued either for a narrow interpretation of equality or even that equality should be allowed to trump liberty.

And it isn’t just me who espouses a concern about outcomes. Nick Clegg this week made it extremely clear that he takes outcomes seriously. On the issue of diversity within our parliamentary party, he declared:

I believe this is our last chance to do it the purely liberal way, without any positive discrimination written into the rules. So I will take out an “insurance policy”, so we make sure we get it right. If, in 2 elections’ time, we have not sorted this out once and for all, then we will have no choice but to consider positive discrimination.

While I welcome this statement, it goes further than I’ve ever gone. According to Mayer’s logic, this makes Nick Clegg a fully paid up member of the “Church of Leftology

Finally, I’ve been castigated for supporting the redistribution of wealth as an end in itself. Once again, I would quote you the Lib Dem preamble:

We recognise that the independence of individuals is safeguarded by their personal ownership of property, but that the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly. We support the widest possible distribution of wealth and promote the rights of all citizens to social provision and cultural activity.

Why has the party taken such an unequivocal line on this? For the simple fact that if wealth is left to accumulate is will always block opportunities for others. Wealth, all things being equal, creates more wealth. A millionaire can outbid a typical graduate on a house without breaking a sweat and use the rental income from it to help buy more houses. The market is not self-correcting in this respect. Redistribution then is a fundamental corrective. Support for it only as a “last resort” is to call on us to waste time trying to avoid a fundamental principle of economics that has been well understood since Adam Smith.

Redistribution of wealth is not the same thing as redistribution of income. Speaking personally, long before the Lib Dems supported cutting income taxes I was calling for us to shift the burden of income and onto wealth. Policies such as the 50p rate on incomes above £100,000 fail to differentiate between hard work, good investment and sitting on inherited wealth. We should always encourage innovation and initiative; we should always discourage people from resting on their laurels.

Ultimately, a commitment to true equality means moving outside the narrow confines of concepts like “meritocracy”, “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” and instead appreciating the bigger picture. Ideally, equality of opportunity ought to produce equality of outcome. In the real world we are never going to achieve that ideal but the creative tension between the two can lead to progress. By contrast, an opportunity-centric approach in the way that Andy Mayer espouses is like a factory owner having a machine in which he believes he can get the best products by putting the finest raw materials in one end, but who refuses point blank to look at what comes out at the other end.

Similarly, confining equality to economic terms is to deny the wide range of areas in which it can and should inform policy; ways which the headbangers for meritocracy appear to be blind to. Human rights, fair votes and universal suffrage – all classical liberal ideas – are rooted in the Enlightenment and thus a fundamental belief in equality.

Liberals take it for granted that liberty is a complex and rich concept; so why this mad rush for reductionism when it comes to equality? Ultimately the two must inform each other. I’m not convinced you can have true equality without liberty: look at how inequality in Venezuala is becoming more stark since Chavez took the reins of power. Conversely, as L.T. Hobhouse put it: “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result.”