Socialist Worker

Taking us back to a place of fear

Iain Ferguson opens a new series of columns with a look at growing inequality under New Labour

Issue No. 1984

The promising new BBC series Life on Mars uses the device of a policeman transported 30 years back in time following a road accident to explore the ways in which society has changed since the early 1970s.

Even for those of us who grew up in these years, the levels of overt sexism, universal smoking and what now seem like primitive communication technologies (what, no mobiles?) still come as a bit of a shock. It’s interesting to speculate, though, on what a visitor from 1973 might make of Britain in 2006.

One thing that she could hardly fail to notice is the increased level of poverty. Poverty grew massively during the Thatcher years and, nearly a decade after the election of a Labour government in 1997, it continues to dominate the lives of millions of people.

In the first week of the new year, the Scotsman newspaper carried a dramatic front page photograph of two babies born last year. One of these babies was born in a wealthy Edinburgh suburb. He can expect to live until the age of 87, a higher life expectancy than almost anywhere in the world.

The second was born in the Calton area of Glasgow. If he’s lucky, he will live to the age of 54, a lower life expectancy than children born in the Gaza Strip.

Nor is this a peculiarly Scottish problem. Similar levels of poverty and inequality could be found in several other major cities in Britain. It’s against that background that New Labour’s claims to be tackling child poverty need to be set.

For other sections of society, things have got even worse. One conclusion of a recent authoritative assessment of poverty and inequality under New Labour was that, “On the latest figures, relative poverty rates have fallen for children, but have stayed constant for pensioners and risen slightly for working age adults without children.”

Linked to this is a huge growth in inequality. Incredibly, reducing inequality has never been a New Labour objective. In a society which is growing richer, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (following Margaret Thatcher) have argued, wealth will “trickle down” from the ranks of newly created millionaires to those living in run down council estates.

Not surprisingly, then, Britain is now a more unequal country than it was even under the Tories. There are several reasons for this. Tax rates as low as those that existed under Thatcher ensure that very little wealth ever trickles down.

As professor Richard Wilkinson has argued in his book The Impact of Inequality, the level of inequality in a society directly affects not only factors such as crime and mental health but also the way in which people behave towards each other.

You can’t have a “respect agenda” of the sort that Blair is pushing in a society that shows so little respect to millions of its citizens.

Perhaps, though, the biggest thing that a visitor from 1973 would notice is the change in people’s hopes and expectations for themselves and their families. For 1973 was also the year that saw the end of the longest boom in the history of capitalism.

During the decades which followed the Second World War, poverty did not go away but many people did experience a real rise in their living standards.

The creation of a welfare state in 1948 meant that, for the first time, working class people could enjoy a degree of security in the face of illness and unemployment. Not for nothing did the left wing Labour MP Nye Bevan call his collection of essays on the welfare state In Place of Fear.

Now, in 2006 that fear is back. A study by the charity Barnardo’s has shown that most people now believe that their children will have a worse life than they have had.

The aggressive neo?liberalism which was the ruling class’s response to the economic crisis of the 1970s has resulted in an insecure society in which nothing is safe from the ravages of the market.

Competition between schools leads to competition between parents to find a place for their kids. Higher education comes with a massive price tag in the form of student debt. Hundreds of thousands are employed on short?term contracts. The collapse of private pension schemes and the closure of final salary schemes mean that millions now face a miserable old age.

Often, these attacks on their jobs and services reinforce people’s sense of powerlessness and they respond with resignation and despair.

At other times, though, as we are seeing in Britain at the moment over the issue of pensions, they can create the potential for collective fightbacks or even, as in France, lead to social explosions that can force governments to retreat.

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