Fairness we can’t believe in.


9:58 pm - January 17th 2009

by Laurie Penny    


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I’ve just got back from stewarding at the Fabian Society Conference, ‘Fairness doesn’t happen by chance’ – tickets fairly priced at £30, which is why I was stewarding. As soon as I saw the title of Secretary James Purnell’s keynote debate – ‘SOLIDARITY LOST? Reviving the will to re-distribute’ – I got an intense and heady craving for a sausage roll. A cigarette. A hard slap in the face. Anything, actually, to reassure me that the life I’m living has some connection to reality. The Welfare Reform Bill may be a hundred and nine pages’ worth of suspicious gibberish and the debate that followed was vaguer and more dubious still, but you always know where you are with a sausage roll.

After some initial platitudes – ‘What is solidarity? Well, I’d say it’s kindness transformed into political reality…’ – the Work and Pensions Secretary got down to the meat and bone of what he has in mind for the nation’s poor. Apparently, ‘passive redistribution’ – the worn, outdated notion of actually transferring money from one group of people to another – simply isn’t ‘modern’ any more. ‘We need to move from the concept of passive redistribution to one of active redistribution-increasing aspiration, education and opportunities’. Not thirty seconds before, Purnell himself had noted that aspiration, education and opportunities are accurately predicted by parental and personal income – but apparently financial redistribution is still just a bit too last century, not to mention expensive.

Onto welfare reform. Purnell’s new Welfare Reform Bill contains nothing whatsoever about actually spreading wealth around (I’ve read it. Twice) and a great deal of sops to an imagined Daily Mail readership – and this is cheerily deliberate. ‘I think politicians need to respond to public opinion,’ Purnell said. And yes, that’s commendable, and that would be fine if there were real research into public opinion behind this Bill, but trouble is that the Mail does not, in fact, reflect public opinion so much as create it – which begs the question of why it’s this particular piece of ‘public opinion’ to which the Brown administration has decided to buck a ten-year trend and pay some attention, a question which was left dissolutely dangling.

The rest of the debate meandered over issues of what the left really mean, what they really mean by the concept of fairness, and was ultimately hijacked by a worthy but somewhat off-topic immigration conversation between Trevor Philips of the ECHRC and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, much to Purnell’s beaming relief. Brown was right, but the extent and detail of her rightness conveniently allowed the entire discussion to abandon all hope of actually addressing actual redistribution actually at all, which nobody had seemed very keen to do in the first place anyway.

After twenty minutes, I realised that no, the chair was not going to take my question, because he’d met me. So I waited for a pause in the proceedings, and stood up and said it.

”So, Mr Purnell, is there actually going to be any increase in financial redistribution, or not?”

Purnell flustered for a split second, and then he asked the chair, ”do I have to answer that question?” The chair (not his fault) shook his head. ”I’m not going to answer that question,” declared the Secretary.

Later, I asked,

”Mr Purnell. In this Welfare Reform Bill, a copy of which I have here *brandish*, you have this week suggested that you’re going to impel long-term benefits claimants to work for large companies, which you’re going to sub-contract at public expense, and you’re going to pay those workers under half the minimum wage, and pay the difference to the companies, companies that include the US mega-firm Wal-Mart. Is that correct? And is it just?”

”Well, Ms Penny, *grin wearing thin*, I think the question we need to ask is, ‘does it work?, isn’t it?”

No, James. No, that’s not the question at all.

A lot of things work, and a lot more things work for a little while. Fascist regimes, for example. Or cleaning your teeth with bleach. Or crash-dieting. The question is, is it fair? Is it right? And is it going to create a stabler and more functional society, as opposed to a dazzlingly unequal corporate archipelago? Unless the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’, does it work doesn’t come into it – not until you know precisely what it is you’re trying to acheive.

”A lot of people would be happy to stack shelves for Wal-Mart, if they were given the opportunity to do it for a living wage. What do you say to that?”

”Well – yes, but we couldn’t do that for everyone who was unemployed for even a day, could we?”

Purnell glared at me, and put on his long, black, expensive-looking coat in a looming-looking way. I, however, am under five feet tall. I’m used to looming. I was not impressed. I remain unimpressed. And as the Bill proceeds through the House in the teeth of a recession, we can only hope that a few stalwart Westminster souls still believe in redistribution – because the Labour’s figureheads certainly don’t.

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Reader comments


Laurie,

I wasn’t in the whole session, so have missed the bit you report on in terms of your personal exchange.

Its fine to have a slightly solipsistic account of the session – but this post simply misreports what Purnell clearly said in his opening comments, where he very clearly said that there WOULD need to be more financial redistribution, followed by the broader account of what that should mean.

There might be lots to disagree with – eg on welfare reform – but it would be much better to disagree with the arguments made

But Purnell clearly said he and the government
1. believed there needed to be more redistribution, and was clear about financial redistribution
2. said that needed to be less passive, more empowering.
3. said that the diffference between left and right wasn’t about whether about the right not caring, but (i) the left thought the state needed to be involved in redistribution; (ii) the left was more sceptical about the pre-redistribution distribution being fair.

I posted the more redistribution quote (he said more, but I was liveblogging) from the session at 11.45
http://www.nextleft.org/2009/01/2008-as-profound-as-winter-of.html

And James Purnell has made a similar point in a break-out session, in calling for more redistribution.

“We do not believe there is enough redistribution yet. Unless children grow up free of poverty, the promise of meritocracy will be a hollow one. Is redistribution enough? No. We do not believe in passive redistribution, which just transfers money from one group of people to another. We want to distribute power and opportunity and not just income and wealth”.

Purnell is one of the strongest New Labour and ‘Blairite’ voices in the government’s next generation. He is never going to be a fundamental critic of markets. But he wanted to rebalance the argument and bring the state back in.

“For the last thirty or so years, politics in Britain has been determined by the image of the winter of discontent. And the idea of achieving a fairer society through state action was damaged. I think that unbalanced politics. And the left had to work within that paradigm. I don’t think we will rebalance to the other side, where markets are entirely dismissed, but I think we can have a more balanced politics as a result”.

Sunder – the problem I find with these debates is not so much what they say, but what they end up doing.

Hazel Blears, in the Fabian Society Labour PArty conference event, was similarly going on continuously about how the party needed to develop grassroots politics.

Similarly, there were bits Purnell said above that I can agree with – I think the left does need to think about how to enable and empower people through equitable wealth and power distribution – but without constantly needing state meddling or umpteen amounts of legislation. Purnell seems to be thinking along the same lines.

Except, they go back to their cubby holes and then produce something that does precisely the opposite. Hazel Blears keep talking about grassroots engagement, but the Communities in Control paper was just all fluff and the same old recycled ideas… the more daring of which will never see the light of day.

In other words, they say one thing – to play the audience, and then do another thing (or later pander to the Daily Mail). And he’s one of the worst.

Thanks for those quotes Sunder. Why would Labour wish to solve poverty , who would vote Labour ?

Do I need to mention the debacle of Equitable Life?

This government is dithering over ensuring compensation is paid to policy holders because they are dying off. And fewer policy holders means lower costs.

‘Lower costs’ is obviously more affordable and we all know more affordable is ‘what works’ (at least in the parlance of Labour, one would have thought ensuring pension schemes not collapsing was actually what works in the real world, but Labour doesn’t live in the real world).

So for distribution read compensation – it’s a matter of justice.

So is it fair? Is it just? Does the government care about people who they can hurry into their grave in order to forget about them?

Next please.

Hi Laurie,

Good on you for questioning Purnell, and thanks for posting this.

1 – Sunder, the quote you cite from Purnell I think actually supports Laurie’s analysis and criticisms. The ‘promise of meritocracy’ is a nightmarish and dystopian one (wasn’t Michael Young a Fabian?) and the idea that the government should actually aim to create a meritocracy is a terrible one.

And redistributing income and wealth leads to the redistribution of power and opportunity. We know what Purnell actually means by getting away from passive redistribution, because he is a cabinet minister and actually has the power to enact policies in line with his arguments.

Sunder, everything you say is eclipsed by the actual outcome of Purnell’s welfare reform bill. More redistribution or less, at what cost is it where we draw the line at what is acceptable of what proviso’s the state draws up as to being included?

Do I need to mention the debacle of Equitable Life?

No, cos it’s completely irrelevant. EL policyholders are rich: people with personally held, private pensions are almost all in the top half of the income distribution. Transferring taxpayer funds to them would/will be *negatively* redistributive.

Laurie, fantastic piece. I don’t always agree with you but in terms of prose styling you’re the best writer going on the UK internets.

8. Alisdair Cameron

Good piece, Laurie, and Sunder I’m afraid your valiant defence of the Fabians’ stance regarding New Labour that you eloquently put elsewhere on this site, and your ‘inside’ approach (working from ‘inside the tent’, as it were) rings a little less true by Laurie’s account: it’s all well and good making some; compromises, making some issues less of a priority, all in order to saty closer to the heart of power, with the aim of using that proximity to try and shape the direction of govt for the better.
However, such a strategy is not without considerable risk, chiefly of ‘going native’, or actually becoming a part of that Govt, sharing its outlook on most issues, and losing sight of your original principles.There are some key issues, points of principle on which you must make a stand, emphasise that you are not synonymous with New Labour, even jeopardise your ‘insider’ status, or else you will for all practical purposes be subsumed into New Lab itself.
Purnell and his appalling Welfare reform paper are one of those sticking point issues, a kind of litmus test: back Purnell and any credibility you may have with the centre-left, left, the progressive, even those with just a rudimentary sense of fairness and justice is blown, gone, possibly forever. Purnell’s paper may have one or two okay crumbs in there, but by goodness it’s one of the plain nastiest, most manipulative, bullying, neo-Thatcherite pieces of legislation for a generation.

Purnell flustered for a split second, and then he asked the chair, ”do I have to answer that question?” The chair (not his fault) shook his head. ”I’m not going to answer that question,” declared the Secretary.

Jeez! Nuff said!

Sunder.

‘Its fine to have a slightly solipsistic account of the session – but this post simply misreports what Purnell clearly said in his opening comments, where he very clearly said that there WOULD need to be more financial redistribution, followed by the broader account of what that should mean.’

No, actually, what Purnell SAID is that there would need to be more redistribution – and then he went on to completely redefine what that should mean. I took it down. I can do shorthand.

The conference yesterday was excellent, and there were some incredibly worthy events, and this debate in particular was not at all one of them. I rarely start sentences this way, but Lee Griffin is right – the Welfare Reform bill is a deeply hateful piece of filth and there is absolutely no way that it’s even Fabian. Good on you for trying to get Purnell to talk fairness – but I don’t think it’s going to work.

“but trouble is that the Mail does not, in fact, reflect public opinion so much as create it.”

Yes, if only it were so straightforward. But the Guardian and the BBC and books by ‘liberated’ women have created your opinions and prejudices. Since conservative opinions are usually empirically-based and left-wing opinions usually ideas-based, I rather think you’re more guilty of receiving you’re opinions from the things you read than are the readers of the Daily Mail. People buy newspapers to preserve and reinforce the world-view they already hold, you are guilty of this as much as anyone else.

Marco,

Yes, that is an important point to raise – nobody’s ideas start in a vacuum. But I am firmly of the opinion that the (very,very broad) swathe of media I consume does at least attempt some journalistic and academic integrity, even when it is biased. The Daily Mail and other right-wing tabloids are not media like any other, and I think that’s a vital thing to remember.

Marco

Since conservative opinions are usually empirically-based

You say this in the same line as referencing the Daily Mail?

Sorry mate, kinda devalues your whole point. The Daily Mail and ‘evidence based reporting’ are, I’m sure, known to each other. Mostly in the “sort of thing we want to avoid at Associated” way.

Conservatives may form their opinions empirically (I’d dispute it, but I’ll allow the point), but if the evidence they use is taken from the news reporting of the Mail and the Telegraph, then their evidence based opinions are going to be fatally flawed, as half truths is about the best you’ll get from the former, and frequent from the latter as well.

“Since conservative opinions are usually empirically-based and left-wing opinions usually ideas-based”

I must laugh.

15. Fellow Traveller

Great stuff putting Purnell on the spot.

“No, actually, what Purnell SAID is that there would need to be more redistribution – and then he went on to completely redefine what that should mean. I took it down. I can do shorthand.”

I wasn’t there but:
“We do not believe there is enough redistribution yet. Unless children grow up free of poverty, the promise of meritocracy will be a hollow one. Is redistribution enough? No. We do not believe in passive redistribution, which just transfers money from one group of people to another. We want to distribute power and opportunity and not just income and wealth”.
doesn’t haven’t a clear meaning one way or the other.

It suggests Purnell does support existing redistribution of income and wealth. It also suggests he supports an increase in redistribution of power and opportunity. It doesn’t necessarily suggest that he believes that increased financial redistribution should play a key part (or, in fact, any part) in increased redistribution of power and opportunity.

Blairites have spent nearly 15 years saying – and I assume genuinely believing – that the two are not directly connected.

Depending on your inclination to do so, you could quite reasonably see this as an energetic restatement of the Blair-era ‘equality of opportunity’ mantra but with the emphasis on the activity rather than the result.

Haven’t you guys heard the news? Poverty is just a lie the left uses to destroy the middle class! (Courtesy of the Daily Mail’s Peter Hitchens)…

The sad thing is, people will read it, and believe that drivel.

“which begs the question of why it’s this particular piece of ‘public opinion’ to which the Brown administration has decided to buck a ten-year trend and pay some attention, a question which was left dissolutely dangling.”

I don’t quite understand this…What trend? Are you being sarcastic? New Labour has been a Daily Mail obedient for a very long time now. Just observe the antics of our Home Secretaries, ffs. At one stage they even gave a scantily reconstructed Stalinist the job just to shut them up a little.

But yes…Me and my micro-critiquing. Fantastic piece, sterling effort to hold that slimy wretch accountable. Perhaps “Fire That Fuckwit Purnell” campaign is in order?

John B@7

“EL policyholders are rich: people with personally held, private pensions are almost all in the top half of the income distribution. Transferring taxpayer funds to them would/will be *negatively* redistributive.”

So you are only interested in selective redistribution on your terms – is that what you call ‘social justice’?

Some of the policyholders may be relatively better off than other people in society, but does that justify wholesale thievery and profiteering at the expense of their prudence and effort?

For the last thirty or so years, politics in Britain has been determined by the image of the winter of discontent. And the idea of achieving a fairer society through state action was damaged. I think that unbalanced politics.

What Mr. Purnell is admitting here is that the last time these insane half-baked theories of redistribution were put into practice, Britain almost went bankrupt. Voters saw that and hence voted Mrs. T in three times. Thank the gods politics was unbalanced!

How many economies have to be ruined, how many millions killed before socialists abandon their stupid ideas?


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