Why inequality is a risk to democracy – Richard Leonard

As economic historian RH Tawney argued in the 1930s, if we want a genuine and stable democracy then we must eliminate all forms of special privilege that favour some and hold down others, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.

It is my belief that we can only be a stable democracy when we eliminate privilege and put economic power at work to the advantage of the majority. It is not a simple matter of social mobility or of an enterprise culture open to all, but of greater equality of outcome and an extension of democracy into the economic sphere.

This is a central question at any time. But at a point in our history when right-wing populists and authoritarians are once again on the march, it assumes a new urgency. Make no mistake, these forces of the right imperil democratic norms. To take one present example, extraordinarily, the Tory leadership election has thrown up the threat to prorogue the House of Commons to drive through a no-deal Brexit. Whether it is shutting down parliaments to impose deeply damaging policies, flouting the rights of women or Muslims, or turning false statements into ‘alternative facts’, attempts to subvert democracy and people’s rights are infecting our politics.

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The response of decent-minded people to this cannot simply be a defence of the status quo. We have to fashion a better idea of democracy that goes deeper. Faced with economic depression and social flux, politicians and philosophers of the past have had to grapple with similar questions.

If everyone has a stake in society and living standards rise for all, it will help the country out of its current troubles (Picture: John Devlin)

RH Tawney argued in the 1930s that democracy is unstable as a political system as long as it remains purely a political system. As he put it, it should be “not only a form of government but a type of society”. He warned that if we want a genuine and stable democracy then we must eliminate all forms of special privilege that favour some and hold down others, whether through education, environment or income. We need to turn economic power over to the service of society as a whole. And we need to challenge what he described as the “religion of inequality” in this country by turning instead to making equality a goal of public policy. He was right.

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Without that equality of power, we will continue to be ridden with division: unfair advantage to some, significant disadvantage to many others. If everyone has a stake in society, and if living standards and the quality of life rise for all of us, it will begin to move us on from the current economic and political turbulence.

This classic socialist argument is just as relevant now as it was in the 1930s when Tawney made it.

Social mobility is stagnating. Simply creating the conditions in which a few can move beyond the circumstances they were born into is not enough. Equality of opportunity is just not the same as equality of outcome. We have to find a way that benefits a greater number. A change of thinking towards social justice and away from the measure of social mobility has to be central to this. So it is very welcome that Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Rayner have announced that a UK Labour Government will abolish the Tories’ Social Mobility Commission, and will instead appoint a Social Justice Commission. It will produce “social justice impact assessments” of government policies and publish advice to ministers about how best to pursue social justice.

This signals a new and more progressive approach for England and it raises an opportunity for Scotland too.

Scotland is not immune from the problems of poverty and inequality that hold thousands of children back from achieving their potential in later life. Some of the Scottish Government’s intentions are good, but there is an implementation deficit. There needs to be more preventative action, a serious strategy for tackling the structural inequalities of power which exist and an understanding of the simple truth that one of the principal answers to poverty is to put money in people’s pockets. One initiative would be to subject every policy proposal put forward by public authorities in Scotland, including Government, to a health inequality impact assessment.

And there are some immediate steps the Scottish Government can take to start to deliver greater social justice in our country.

To begin with, it could act immediately on the income supplement and the two-child cap.

The Government currently proposes delaying the supplement’s introduction to 2022. Their own Poverty and Inequality Commission argued in its response to the Scottish budget that the Government “urgently needs to consider how they can progress [their income supplement] quicker or, if this is not feasible, what interim measures could help”.

A second body, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has given stark warnings: “Scotland is at a precipice. Either it allows child poverty to rise as it is expected to do across the UK, or it uses the powers the Scottish Parliament now has to take a different path.” It says that the Government’s plans, to deliver an income supplement from 2022, “would fail to meet the key principle of urgency”.

A third body, the Child Poverty Action Group, published a report from the IPPR that concluded the greatest reduction in child poverty relative to cost of any single option for Scotland would be achieved by addressing the two-child cap, a step the Scottish Government refuses to take.

The SNP Government should now consider how it would engage with the new Social Justice Commission that would be established following a snap election of a Labour Government before the next Holyrood elections.

Labour has made it clear that the new Commission would have a role in relation to Scotland in reserved areas of policy only, and that the elected Scottish Government would have responsibility in devolved areas.

A Scottish Labour Government here will ask the Social Justice Commission to engage with us and the existing Scottish Poverty and Inequality Commission because I see merit in joint working to tackle some of the deep-seated problems that exist in all parts of the United Kingdom. After all, the forces that create child poverty, affect life chances and widen inequality in the poorest communities in Scotland are the same forces that blight the left-behind communities of England, Wales and Northern Ireland too. That’s why we can and we should work together.