The state of responsibility
Today Demos launched three pamphlets, aimed at the three main political traditions, urging each of them to tackle inequality in their own distinctive way. Everyday Equality, aimed conservatives, was difficult to write. Not because conservatives never care about inequality (sometimes we do) but because we are burdened with an immense amount of political and rhetorical baggage on the issue. Thatcherite apologies for inequality have sometimes stymied those conservatives who are uncomfortable with massively uneven distribution. Indeed, when we try to voice our concern the shout often emerges from the left that we are only pretending to be care, that this is simply a masquerade to be performed until the power of office is ours. That reaction is based in the idea that all conservatives are, at heart, neoliberals with portraits of Milton Friedman above our beds, engaged in a desperate struggle to conceal our true selves from an unsuspecting world – that simply is not the case.
I am a conservative because I believe in the traditions, institutions and heritage that bind our country together; because I respect the law and favour order; because I believe that while the state is one tool for achieving social justice it is neither the only, nor the best. None of these beliefs mean that conservatives are necessarily predisposed to admiring or desiring an unequal society – they just mean that we might have a different view of how entrenched inequality should be combated.
In the pamphlet I argue that because of the state’s existing role as an employer in the public sector it is acceptable for the state to use that sector in the promotion of social good. The evidence that inequality causes societal harm is strong and getting stronger – in light of that evidence Government should use the power it already has to set an example. The income gap between a nurse and the Chief Executive of their NHS trust can be as large as 15 to 1, between a Local Authority boss and their employees it can be 11 to 1. These gaps are not only a reflection of the bizarre premium that our public sector places on the skills of management they are damaging to the morale and the cohesion of these institutions and the communities their employees are drawn from. The armed forces – an institution that is famed for its emphasis on unity morale – manages to function with a comparable income ratio of 6 to 1, the question is why the NHS and Local Authorities cannot do the same.
The centre-right is not traditionally seen as the home of tub-thumping equality activism. In part that is because our respect for the autonomy and agency of individuals makes us reluctant to use the state to attempt utopian projects – this reluctance need not apply when dealing with the machinery of the state itself. By tackling gross inequality in the public sector we can set an example to business (in much the same way that the Living Wage has in London) whilst highlighting the genuine concerns that some conservatives have about the impact of inequality on our society.