Now that the parties are jockeying for position at the starting gates of the next general election, the same old tired arguments are coming from each side, and from the press. One of the tiredest allegations concerns ‘the politics of envy’. This is an expression used to describe any attempt to make our society more equal, and has been rolled out by the business editor of the Times this week.
Now then. I have been in or around progressive politics most of my life . I was a Labour councillor in the 1970s in Middlesbrough, stayed a member of the Labour Party for most of the Blair years, only giving up when Gordon Brown persisted in his kow-towing to business interests and bankers. Yep, I actually spotted that one before 2008 crash. My work has involved meeting community groups, trade unions, and I have always operated in deprived areas – the West Midlands, Teesside, Manchester, industrial Yorkshire, Inner London. I worked on European programmes to help those affected by the steel closures in Sheffield. I’ve met some superb people – my ward chairman in Middlesbrough was a portly security guard at a chemical works, humble family grandpa who revealed to me over a pint one night that he had fought in Spain in the 1930s. I’ve been involved with policy debates on all sorts of topic and in all sorts of places. But I have never, on any occasion, thought that the arguments for greater equality, or better public services, or fairer taxation, were motivated by envy. The very idea that an unemployed steelworker trying to pay his gas bill, or an inner-city Londoner struggling with the rent, are somehow attracted by Richard Branson’s lifestyle, or Philip Green’s behaviour, or the Duke of Westminster’s property portfolio, only has to be stated to be seen to be absurd.
What people on the progressive side of politics want is a society where everyone has a fair deal. It goes beyond fairness, the idea that our common humanity gives us an obligation to ensure that all our fellow citizens can lead a decent and dignified life. A more equal society can be shown to be healthier, and happier. You can even find Nobel Prize-winners like Joseph Stiglitz who would argue that more equality will lead to a more prosperous society, making it easier to end the slump. None of these arguments is about envy, and those that say it is should sit down and spend some time washing out of their brain the clichés used by the rich to avoid thinking about their responsibility to contribute to common decency.
(p.s. any progressive person who is well off is, of course, a champagne socialist. They get you both ways)