Socialist Worker

Harriet Harman’s equality plans are a class fraud

Labour’s new Equality Bill makes some brave claims. But, in reality, it won’t even come near to tackling inequality, writes Bob Holman

Issue No. 2158

With the leadership of the Labour Party likely to come up for grabs, Harriet Harman has attempted to make herself more acceptable to the centre left.

Apparently she is no longer a Blairite. She has even admitted that she may have been mistaken to vote for a war in Iraq, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, including many children.

Her tactic is to identify herself with the word “equality” in order to give the impression that she is an egalitarian.

As equality minister, she has guided the new Equality Bill through the House of Commons.

In the initial White Paper, she inserted a duty on public bodies to reduce the income gap between rich and poor.

She boasted, “We are...saying that having a more fair, a more equal, a less divided society is better not just for the individual, but the economy and society as a whole.”

Polly Toynbee, the well-known writer on poverty, describes the proposals as “legislation of extraordinary radicalism” and enthuses over Harman’s new social order.

In fact, it is a social con. In the actual Equality Bill, the wording becomes tackling the “inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage”.

Whatever this jumble of words means, it will have little impact on the inequality of most of Britain’s citizens for several reasons.

First, the duty applies only to public bodies not private ones. The bankers and the financiers with their million pound salaries, bonuses and pensions will not be in danger.

Not exactly legislation of extraordinary radicalism!

Second, Harman gives an example of a local authority tackling inequality.

Poor parents will be encouraged to get their children into better schools.

Useful – but hardly a challenge to inequality.

Third, the Equality Bill is mainly about removing the social disadvantages of certain groups – namely women, the disabled and those from ethnic minorities.

Quite right too, but there is no emphasis on increasing the income and wealth of all people at the bottom of society.

Harman continues her tactic in regard to parliamentary representation. As leader of the House of Commons, she says that it is overwhelmingly filled with white, middle class men.

She argues that if people see the Commons as a narrow and self-serving elite then it has no legitimacy.

She has been the moving spirit behind the establishment of the Speaker’s Conference, which involves a group of MPs who move around the country taking evidence from well-known individuals and groups.

Once again, the focus is on the under-representation of women, the disabled and ethnic minorities.

Of course, these groups should have greater representation. But so too should members of the working class and all people on low incomes.

Yet they are virtually excluded from consideration.

Harriet Harman overlooks the fact that in recent decades the number of working class MPs has dropped while those who have attended private schools and Oxbridge has increased.

So much for her new social order.

Official figures show that Britain is a more unequal country than at any time since modern records began in 1961.

The recent research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, reveals that Britain is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

Those at the bottom suffer more mental illness, physical ill-health, violence, alcohol and drug problems, premature deaths and much more.

This can be rectified not by giving the poor a few more quid but by promoting greater equality.

In short, the wealth of those at the top must be drastically cut.

If Harman is serious then she should specify the objectives – for instance that no individual has more than three times the income of another.

She should then spell out just what radical legislation is needed to redistribute both income and wealth.

She is silent.

Harman is a wealthy woman.

She has a luxurious home which she has shown off in Hello magazine.

She is in favour of fee paying schools.

I invited her to join others who practice egalitarianism by living on modest incomes in low-cost neighbourhoods.

She has not replied.

By her income, possessions and life-style, she reinforces inequality. Harriet Harman is an egalitarian fraud.

Bob Holman is a former academic who worked in deprived areas for 30 years

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Article information

Tue 30 Jun 2009, 18:25 BST
Issue No. 2158
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