Labour today are going back to talk about equality.It’s well within their comfrot zone. If they looked at the numbers and saw the growing inequalities they have presided over they might be more cautious in choosing this topic.
I am with them when they condemn racial or class based discrimination. It is common political ground in modern Britain that we want to live in a society open to all the talents and blind to background, race and colour.
The political arguments need to be centred instead on where there are disagreements. Is equality of opportunity more important than equality of outcome? Should you make a society more equal by taking away money and achievement from the people and institutions that have done well, or should you instead concentrate on changing those things that can be changed so more people and institutions can thrive?
My view is equality of opportunity is what matters most. Policy should be aimed at levelling up, not levelling down. We should not want to abolish Eton, but give to state schools more of the love of learning and pursuit of excellence which makes Eton what it is. I speak as a former scholarship boy whose parents could not afford to send me to a smart fee paying school. I was fortunate to be educated in an era when you could go to a good school on a state financed free place.
I am all in favour of improving the schools that teach people in lower income areas. If only Labour would take the steps needed to achieve that. Their much vaunted belief in comprehensives for all has not produced the equality they expected. Many comprehensives in better off areas outperform by a big margin the majority of comprehensive in less well off areas. The elite schools for the children of the richest outperform all by an astonishing margin. This surely must be as dispiriting for Labour’s class warriors as for the rest of us.
I am all in favour of welfare reform so we have a system which encourages people to succeed more. I would like to see people treated better financially if when unemployed they start to work for themselves.
There are a couple of hard truths about inequality which many Labour Ministers and MPs do not wish to confront. Most of the really successful people I know work harder and longer hours than people who do not reach the pinnacles. Most of the really wealthy who have made their money themselves have made it by taking risks the rest of us would not dare take.
There are limits to what an interventionist governemnt can do to reduce inequality. As this government has discovered, you can spend huge sums of money on trying to balance incomes up, yet the end result of their labour is more inequality than when they began. You can seek to attack the best institutions and the most successful people in your country, but this is not a guaranteed route to greater riches for the many. On the contrary, it is the route to less tax coming in, and fewer role models and job creators remaining here, if you push it too far.
So how can a well intentioned government encourage more people to put in the effort and take the risks that it takes to be well off? There are two main changes required. You need to tax the profits and incomes of success less, so it is more worthwhile for the less motivated to want to try. You need to be less penal on business failure, so more people will think giving it a go a worthwhile bet. Bankers and financiers took too much risk. They did so because they were playing with other people’s money. Elsewhere in our economy we collectively take too little risk. The result is we achieve lower living standards and have fewer home produced goods and choice of home delivered services.
It is not Oxford and Cambridge’s fault that so many state school pupils fail to get three grade A A levels or better, and fail to demonstrate that extra love of learning and additional knowledge that comes from intensive study if they go to interview for a place. The problems lie not in the elite universities, but in the state schools. This government seems to think the universities should solve the social problems the government has so singularly failed to tackle in a way which delivers.