by Robin Thorpe
With Ed Miliband’s recent talk of rebuilding the middle class and his previous rhetoric of the squeezed middle are we now seeing a resurgence of class consciousness? Or is Ed just focusing on familiar words to cloak his lack of credible policies? I sincerely hope it is the former. The problem with the concept of class is that because the labour market is now so diverse it can be difficult for people to identify what class they are. Perhaps, therefore, we should just recognise that there are broadly only two classes of people; the ‘power elite’ and the rest of us.
I can understand why people may want to cling to the notion that there is a hierarchy of socio-economic divisions that we can climb up if we only work hard enough. People have evolved to compete for resources and societies have long been predicated on prestige and social position. But surely we must now recognise that the division between the elite and the rest is so entrenched that it will take more than a bit of pluck and a protestant work ethic to break the stranglehold of inequality. Will Hutton has written that he thinks that Ed Miliband’s “cost of living” crisis is a sideways route into opening up an argument over inequality and I hope that he is right.
Enabling effective change will not be easy; there are many vested interested who will oppose a recalibration of the way that our economy works. The obvious attack on Miliband’s ambition is to decry it as statist and anti-business. Fraser Nelson writes in the Telegraph that a Labour government implementing this agenda would result in “companies refusing to invest, and wealth-creators leaving”. This argument ignores the fact that the notion of state vs. business is a false choice; neither can this choice be defined as socialism vs. capitalism. Instead it should be defined as shallow versus deep freedom.
Steve Davies from the Institute for Economic Affairs (on Radio 4’s The Longview) agrees that the cost of living is a real problem for those on low wages; in particular the cost of housing. But he also states that workers must increase their productivity to improve their wage-earning capacity, as if low wages are their fault for not working hard enough. Solving the problem of the cost of living will still leave people dependant on increasingly precarious employment.
A leader in The Economist recently made a very good case for the importance of skills and education in combating this phenomenon and why we should invest more in pre-school and adult learning. But also admits that this will still result in some people relying on a benevolent state to provide subsistence. These actions may mitigate the worst aspects of poverty but they will not ameliorate the effects of inequality. Some inequality is an inevitable by-product of an organised society, but extreme levels of inequality are bad for everybody.
Those who would seek to maintain the status quo will offer a risible rise in wages and will continue to provide state-sponsored subsistence to bribe the voters. They will provide schemes to maintain the majority in machine-like jobs and will present mortgage debt as an aspiration for all. They will not attempt to increase opportunity and autonomy because to do so would threaten the interests of those who wield political influence. For them freedom means less regulation and redistribution. It means the absence of state interference in the business of multiplying wealth.
These political schemes of varying complexity and success may lead to some future prosperity and may guarantee future jobs, but the majority of individuals will still have very little influence on their personal future. People will still be bound to the will and caprice of employers. The majority of people will still subsist on wages that represent a small proportion of the value that their employment creates and the cost of living will continue to rise as the banks and other vested interests maintain the high cost of housing.
To challenge the system of inequality it is necessary to implement radical change to bring about greater personal and collective freedoms. To settle for anything less is to accept the existing institutional framework. The framework that offers varying combinations of state and market designed to ensure that the inequalities generated by the market are corrected by the redistributive and regulatory activity of the state. The very fact that people in their droves are fleeing the country and travelling to cities such as London in search of a job, any job, is proof enough that people don’t just want more equality. People want more consumption, more excitement, more of everything except equality. Deep freedom, the capability to make more of their own life, must be the objective of radical change.
Perhaps I am reading too much in to what Milband is trying to do; but it definitely seems to me that in his speeches on ‘predators’ and ‘pre-distribution’ he is pitching to represent the 99%. And that he is willing to take on the ‘Power Elite’. Blair and Mandelson famously shied away from challenging the ‘shadow cast on society by big business’, seeking merely to attenuate the effects. I hope that Miliband is brave enough to try and that we give him the opportunity to effect real and lasting structural change.
In order to be successful Miliband must first raise awareness that he alone represents the interests of the people. He must not just convince traditional Labour supporters but all the electorate that a vote for Labour is a vote in favour of the collective interests of the 99%. He must convince the electorate that the status quo only serves the interests of the elite and that Labour will enact meaningful change.
Ed Miliband is certainly influenced by his father and by other notable socialists Tariq Ali and C. Wright Mills. The papers have recently been suggesting that he aims to be a 21st Century Teddy Roosevelt. I suspect that he has also been reading George Lakoff:
“The liberal market economy maximizes overall freedom by serving public needs: providing needed products at reasonable prices for reasonable profits, paying workers fairly and treating them well, and serving the communities to which they belong. In short, “the people the economy is supposed to serve” are ordinary citizens.”
I think that all political parties have done the people a disservice by pretending that ‘we are all middle-class now’. Yes disposable incomes are higher; yes more people now work in offices rather than in manual occupations. But the availability of credit and the cultural incitement to home and car ownership means that just as many people are now wage-slaves, dependant on employment to pay for their ‘standard of living’, as they ever have been. As Ernest Bevin said “We must not confuse democracy with the maintenance of a particular form of economic or financial system…rather it is a condition which allows for change in the system itself”’
Robin Thorpe is a consulting engineer for a small practice on the south coast