Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Harriet Harman vs the politics of envy

Danny Finkelstein highlights an article criticising Harriet Harman's 'attack on the rich'. If you remember, Harman made the perfectly reasonable point that equality of opportunity is a bit tricky while some people have no money and others can spend £10,000 on a handbag.

The author writes, "Now I have to profess to being something of a soft-left, surrender-monkey, bleeding-heart, namby-pamby liberal – but even I think this kind of rhetoric against the rich is ridiculous."

[It is always a very bad sign when an article includes a sentence with most or all of the words 'I' 'left' 'liberal' 'but even I' c.f. also Nick Cohen, passim]

"Oh, I forgot, it’s not OK to tell poor people how they spend their cash. But we can get all moral about the wasteful rich."

[Indeed not. No one, after all, would use a term like, say, 'chav' to imply disapproval of how poor people choose to spend their money. Telling poor people how they should spend their cash is practically a national obsession.]

"Suggesting that rich people, heaven forbid, actually spending their money is wrong is pathetic."

Which is, of course, not what Harman said.

I'll skip the rest of the piece (an ad hominem attack along the lines of 'you say that you are left-wing but you wear shoes - what a hypocrite, eh?), and the comments explaining how giving vast wealth to the rich trickles down and helps all of us. What is interesting is that critics of what Harman said, obviously don't feel confident about debating the actual point about the effects of inequality.

They could argue that it is jolly good that some people spend £10,000 or more on consumer items, because it gives the rest of us something to work hard and aspire to (I think this is Hazel Blears' argument). Or that rich people already pay quite enough (the author does argue this, but only to point out that it is 'distasteful' to criticise how they spend their money) though the corollary to this is that we should cut taxes for wealthy people, which is John Redwood's idea but one which for some reason moderate people feel uncomfortable about advocating. So why pretend that Harriet Harman hates the rich when she makes a mild point about the effect of inequality?

It always struck me as really weird that there is a consensus that Middle England won't tolerate the 'politics of envy' (that doesn't chime at all with my experience of 'Middle England' voters). It is getting increasingly noticeable that the massive growth in wealth and power amongst the highest earners is having a knock on effect on others - City bonuses help fuel house price inflation, tax avoidance amongst the very wealthy mean that most people have to pay more tax for public services. At the same time, it is getting harder to argue that we should be envious of the trade unions, the loony left, scroungers or the other traditional targets. You would have to be a pretty determined ideologue to think that the cause of people not being able to buy their own homes were evil trade union militants or loony left councils, for example. Just about the only alternative reasonable target for the politics of envy are immigrants (and much of Middle England has benefited directly from recent immigration).

It is a moderate and reasonable position, backed up by masses of evidence, that we need to reduce the gap between the wealthiest and poorest, and that this gap is a major cause of ongoing disadvantage. Even some of the people who have done best out of the growing inequality are struck by the consequences, hence KPMG lauding the consequences of higher wages for low paid staff. But others are determined to fight on, and their rallying cry is to smear others for promoting the 'politics of envy', even as they try to arouse envious criticism of people less well off than themselves, and in particular to blame people's behaviour for the poverty that they face.

It's not a sign of hating the rich to say that instead of some people spending £10,000 on a handbag while many children go to school without having had any breakfast; those people should have the disposable cash to spend £9,000 on a handbag, and every child start the school day having had a proper breakfast so they can concentrate on lesson. As more and more people feel the impact of inequality, the old jibes from the 1980's lose their potency.


At 12:31 am , Anonymous Pickles said...

Couldn't agree more.

(you didn't expect that).

However I think we need to be a bit cleverer about this. Harriet was rabitting on about handbags. That makes it sound like a. envy b. ridiculing people for spending what a sadly large proportion of people see as hard won gains.

That's because she has no political nouse on these things. The reality is that the "left" has completely failed to articulate the equality argument - and the culprits are in part the left wing politicians of new labour who haven't engaged with it but also the slightly less left wing politicians like the Campaign group etc who are concerned with choosing the least plausible argument about inequality in order to discredit the principle of tackling it.

Both are to blame. But the reality is that, because we are where we are, we will lose out to the right if we don't find a better way than harriet did to articulate the problem she clumsily stumbled into. And the first step to doing that is electing people to lead us who are trusted by those we need to appeal to. Not harriet.

At 2:18 am , Blogger Gregg said...

in part the left wing politicians of new labour [...] but also the slightly less left wing politicians like the Campaign group


At 7:56 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

pickles - I think that is just about spot on.

One of the weaknesses of both the deputy leadership election and the procedures we have for discussing things in the Labour Party is that we haven't worked out how to talk about tackling inequality in a popular and accessible way. Instead, the current split is 'we should talk about inequality and if those people who used to vote Tory and now vote for us don't like it they can shove off' vs 'we shouldn't talk about inequality at all because it made us lose elections in the 1970s'.


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