Inequalities - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 30 November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 4:13, 30 November 2017

My Lords, I offer my sincerest apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for attempting to jump the sequence of speakers. The idea was not to usurp his place; I was simply impatient to get what I wanted to say out of the way.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on securing the debate and introducing it so well. I express my great delight and pleasure at the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, who has given far more thought to this subject than many other Members of this House. I am pleased that he should be here, exerting a quiet influence on the speakers. One can exercise power without being in power. One can be influential from outside the political arena.

I want to address this subject from a slightly different angle. We have been talking about regional and national inequalities. When I raised this subject with a friend of mine, his question was very obvious. He said, “Regional inequality is simply a stalking horse for the old socialist idea of equality. After all, what are regions? What are nations? They are made of individuals. When we talk about regional equality, we are talking about equality between individuals—and if we are going to talk about equality between individuals, we are establishing some kind of equality between all British citizens throughout the country, which is nothing else but the old socialist idea of promoting equality by different means”.

I want to talk not about regional inequalities, which have already been demonstrated and established by many of your Lordships, but about equality in general. Why is equality a good thing? Why is it desirable? People say, for example, that as long as nobody is starving, everybody’s self-respect is maintained and everybody’s worth is respected, it does not matter who is equal to whom. In this case, when we are constantly comparing ourselves to London, the argument is that we all want to be like Londoners. If London has 60% more income than the national average, and better facilities, then why can we not have the same? A Londoner could turn to you and say, “This is all politics of envy”—as they always said about the preachers of equality. Are we simply talking about politics of envy? Do we all want to be Londoners, without living in London and suffering its hardships? At the end of the day, what are we asking for? Assuming that the question is about politics of envy, I want to address the question at that level.

Why is equality important? I think that equality is important for four reasons, at least. First, any kind of inequality, especially the kind that operates in our society, is unjust. If someone is born in a rich family, they inherit a network of contacts, which are never deserved but simply acquired by virtue of who they are. Inequality in our society is unjust because it makes people bearers of undesired, undeserved and unwanted privileges.

The other thing is that inequality is never alone. Different kinds of inequalities are always interlocked: inequality of powers, political inequality, inequality of income and inequality of respectability. They all come together and collectively create a system from which those at the bottom are unable to escape.

Inequality also skews a society’s system of values. After the financial crisis, banks were helped out pretty quickly, but millions were condemned to suffer from austerity. The question is: why? Why did even the most sensible people not think it proper to look after the victims in the aftermath of the crisis, rather than the bankers, who could simply laugh at us and move on to equally nasty things? This is what inequality does: it skews our system of values so that certain things appear obvious to us when they should not.

Finally, and importantly, inequality between regions and individuals creates unequal experiences. The rich live in gated communities, but we condemn the rest to travel by public transport or live in public residences. The result is that there is nothing in common between these people. If they have nothing in common, how can we sustain a sense of community? How can we sustain a democratic form of government, which depends on a shared sense of community?

Therefore, for all these reasons, regional inequality and other kinds of inequality are unacceptable and we are absolutely right to fight them—not out of politics of envy, but out of politics of common good. Common good and justice require that these inequalities should be countered and that something should be done to create a genuine sense of community in the country. The regional inequalities detract from that sense of community and therefore reduce the spirit of democracy that obtains in the country. At the same time, while I recognise that inequalities create these ugly consequences, I accept the fact that inequalities are bound to exist because of differences in talents and circumstances where one is born. This is where the state’s role comes in—to make sure that these inevitable inequalities that issue out of differences in circumstances do not get intergenerationally consolidated, do not get interlocked, and do not skew our values. This is where some kind of sensible policy from the state has a great role to play.

We are talking about a comprehensive agenda for equality. Obviously, a comprehensive agenda includes not simply economic equality but social inequality: of race, that the Muslims suffer, and that other communities suffer. However, given the shortage of time I will not talk about it. I will just talk about economic inequality and how it impacts on people’s lives. People in different parts of the country, from different walks of life, suffer from certain consequences because of the circumstances in which they are condemned to live. People in the poorest areas, for example, die on average seven years earlier, according to the British Lung Foundation. They are cognitively less developed, suffer from poor health, and there is weak motivation among those in deprived areas, and more smoking and more alcohol.

With all these things, too many people are left behind. The advantages of globalisation go only to the few and the rest express themselves through Brexit and other kinds of pedlars of strange, fanciful, seductive and unrealistic utopias. This is where the problem arises, that people who are unable to benefit from globalisation feel left out, full of resentment and anger, and the only way they think they can counter those who seem to be benefiting is by acting in ways which appear strange to some of us but perfectly natural to those who have grown up with them. In this context I am pleased that the Labour Party, certainly for the last few years, has taken up this idea of equality. Not only Jeremy Corbyn but Tom Watson, who happens to have been a student of mine once upon a time, have been strongly arguing for equality.

My last point is that I talked about community; without it there is no democracy or sense of sharing, and our destinies are interlocked. This is something that liberals do not often realise when they talk about choices. In a racially mixed school, if white parents withdraw their children, the blacks are condemned to study in all-black schools. This was not their choice—they did not want their children to go to all-black schools. They are condemned to send their children there because the whites have decided to withdraw. In other words, one man’s choice is another man’s coercion. When you choose, you choose not only for yourself but for others. Therefore, when you choose, you must choose with a sense of responsibility, with some concern for others. That implies a sense of community, which we have all been talking about.