Lynne Featherstone

MP for Hornsey and Wood Green

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Lynne's Parliament and Haringey Diary, established 2003

The level of inequality in this country is a scandal

I’ve commented before on how I suspect that issues around equality (is promoting equality of opportunity enough? or do we need more emphasis on delivering greater equality of outcome?) is one of the key philosophical differences between Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg.

Don’t get me wrong – I think both their beliefs sit more happily in the same party than plenty of pairs of Labour or Conservative MPs and their beliefs that I can think of! But I think there are some real differences here.

All of which is a long introduction to saying – Chris has a piece today over on Comment is Free:

The level of inequality in this country is a scandal. In Britain today, the strongest indicator of life expectancy is social class. The strongest indicator of children’s chances at school is their parents’ income: as early as age three, children from disadvantaged families lag a full year behind their middle class contemporaries. The chance of someone born into a low income group of moving into a higher group as an adult is lower now that it was 50 years ago.

Liberal Democrats don’t tend to talk about equality as much as we champion liberty. But in reality we can’t separate the two. The extent of inequality is now so large that it is a serious restriction on freedom – and for all of us, not only those at the bottom of the income and wealth ladder.

Not surprisingly – I agree! Because as I said on an earlier occasion:

Your educational chances are strongly correlated to your social class – setting the prospects for children even before they reach school. In health too, inequalities are still increasing. Ever since the publication of the Black Report twenty-five years ago, it’s been well known that inequalities in people’s health are directly related to inequalities in income and wealth. That’s why Greece, with half the average wealth per person of the US, actually has a longer average life expectancy. And in Iraq – after ten years of sanctions, with war ravaged infrastructure and continuing violence – has an average male life expectancy that is 8 years higher than that of the Calton area of Glasgow. The explanation? Inequalities in wealth again.

In fact, a whole host of studies across different countries have consistently shown that not just in terms of education and health, but also in terms of crime, social respect, trust and participation – the outcomes are linked to the degrees of inequality in wealth and income.

Mon 19 November 2007
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Comments

  1. dreamingspire says:

    Actually the modern expousing of meritocracy as providing a route out of relative poverty can be traced back almost 50 years. My introduction to it was through the statements being made by the then Sir Eric James (later Lord James of Rusholme) when he was High Master of Manchester Grammar. That was then a Direct Grant school with a significant number of pupils funded by local authorities, and thus family income was not a factor in the decision to give them a place. (MGS and Manchester were not unique: other LAs did the same in their areas, sometimes offering weekly boarding places for pupils from rural areas – Yorkshire North Riding was an example of this.)
    Successful passage through the Direct Grant schools led to entry to any university, although I do remember one student who passed the Cambridge Open Scholarship exams but was deemed unsuitable (it was said that he went out one night to a pub while staying in a Cambridge College for the exams, and was caught climbing into the College after the gate was locked).
    Lord James’ views on meritocracy were later regarded as ‘controversial’
    http://www.york.ac.uk/admin/presspr/40thanniversary/1960s.htm
    (There was a discussion paper on the web in its entirety, but I didn’t preserve the link and Google doesn’t find it now.)
    Chris Huhne’s article also reminds me that it was not so long ago that we were lamenting the loss of both managerial and academic talent to the USA because of the higher salaries offered there, and so we need to increase remuneration here. Then we had (and still have) the loss of public sector talent here to the private sector: going for more money and less stressful jobs. The private sector here has of course been following the USA pattern of growing inequalities, and now the public sector has followed suit.
    I doubt that we can do much about pay inequalities, so we have to widen those routes that allow merit to shine. That leads us to looking at reversing the ‘dumbing down’ tendency, most obvious in those large sections of the public sector where competence is derided, as repeated Commons Select Committee reports witness.

  2. Tristan says:

    So why is Chris refusing to look at liberal systems which give power to the consumer of public services.

    In the US it is the poor and disenfranchised who want education vouchers or tax credits so they can get out of the trap.

    It seems that for many equality no longer means equality of opportunity, it means the old socialist cry of equality of outcome, something which can only be achieved with equality in poverty (or equality in poor service like the NHS and state education sector).

    I’d rather give people power over their own lives and free them from the arbitrary state. That would do more to increase equality of wealth than anything else (apart from perhaps LVT, but Chris has been very quiet on that, even though he’s president of ALTER).

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