Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Track Changes: Polly Fetishising Harman again.

I think that Harman's law is Labour's biggest idea for 11 years

A public-sector agenda duty to close the gap between rich and poor will tackle the class divide in a way that no other policy has by dragging everyone - except your's truly of course - down to the same level.

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Polly Toynbee
The Guardian, Tuesday 13 January 2009

Here comes startling news to me. The social mobility white paper published today will propose legislation of extraordinary radicalism - simplistic, spiteful and exasperating simple, fundamental and profound. It should have been Labour's albatross guiding light for the last 11 years - but better late than never.

The government will create a new over-arching piece of legislation law (better call it that, so it sounds more legitimate) creating an obligation a duty on the whole public sector on the taxpayer to fund narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. This vague and immeasurable, utterly obfuscated single legal duty will stand as the main frame from which all other equality legislation curls out flows. Race, gender and disability injustices are all subsets of the one great obsession inequality - class. It trumps them all. The gap between rich and poor in Britain is greater than in almost all rich nations, putting the UK with the United States among the most unequal.

This new (new? I thought I implied it was always there...oh well, who cares, eh?) duty to narrow the gap would permeate every aspect of government policy and seep out into all the lives of the serfs. Its possible ramifications are mind-bogglingly immense - as expensive and unachievable astonishing as Tony Blair's promise to abolish child poverty: it will make that pledge no more achievable by 2020.

Harriet Harman, the head of the government's inequality office, is the architect of the new law (being a single simple law it is like being called an architect of a doorknob) and will outline its meaning and importance in a speech to the Fabian Fifth Columnist Society's annual conference on Saturday. Business secretary Peter Mandelson will speak at the Fabian event too, (insert some kiss-buttery here) which should be interesting. Harman fought a long and successful battle for cabinet support, with virtually all the nematode worms infesting that room agreeing with enthusiasm to its inclusion in today's white paper, though with some notable opposition probably from a GOAT who has had the temerity to grow a pair. The only bill it could be included in is the imminent equalities bill, making equality itself the prime objective. One cabinet member described it with relish as "socialism in one clause" (probably the one who objected to it...).

Harman's law will be considerably more significant than the new social mobility review chaired by the resurrected Alan Milburn because Harriet is female and Alan is a man and so knows nothing about these things. Trying to socially engineer get more people from Labour supporting poor backgrounds into the top professions is a reasonable endeavour for a Fabian Fifth Columnist: the army, medicine, the law, politics, media and most professions are dominated by the better privately educated. Finding ways to get bright pupils from poor families into internships and work experience to reach top occupations will no doubt help to slightly rebalance the odds for a few. Geoffrey Vos QC, former head of the Bar Association, who sits on the Milburn review, chairs the Social Mobility Foundation which helps high-flying pupils on free school meals into top-rank professions (Ed: what happened here, Polly? Is that a quote or something? Sort yourself out, deerie).

But the evidence, globally, is that little progress can be made until the country as a whole is more equal so the law changes the public sector, which we know IS the world, isn't it?. Welfarism (can't say that! Its true, but keep on message...)Inequality is the root cause of social immobility. However, politicians of all parties are happiest talking about "opportunity", pulling the ablest up the ladders - without too many questions asked about why the ladders are so steep, and why the distance is so great from bottom to top (Ed: the ladders won't reach otherwise, luv). It is a great deal less controversial than idealistic talk of narrowing the gap itself.

Even Milburn's modest review has excited the right's usual knee-jerk reaction, with accusations of "dumbing down" and "social engineering". Moves to make the privileges enjoyed by middle-class children (insert some vague ungrammatical cockwaffle statement here) more easily shared by others are always rebuffed with fury by potential losers. Politicians who say they want equal opportunities for all tend to sidestep the blindingly obvious fact that if more comprehensive school children go to Oxbridge, top law firms and medical schools, there will be fewer places for private school pupils. Room at the top is limited.

Labour gets round this by promising to expand the bureaucracy, create more laws, form more QANGOs and generally burden the economy with 100,000's more highly paid non-productive salaried unemployed increase the demand for top jobs - but entry level to the professions will always be a tight bottleneck. Social mobility means some must fall as others rise: naturally the middle classes will fight hard to hold their own. In more equal countries the falling hurts less when lifestyle, status and pay are less cruelly divided and penalities for failure less punishing i.e. when all those below my class are roughly earning the same whatever they do or however hard they work.

In Britain, birth is destiny for almost everyone especially talentless blatherers like me. Where you are born, is where most people stay. Family finance predicts what will happen to most children. Rags to riches celebrity stories dominate popular imagery, but the "it could be you" social lottery fantasy is mostly a convenient lie to keep everyone in their place but we want a law so you damn well stay there unless you lick Labour boots. (Insert some post hoc fallacy to support the nonsense) The countries where there is least match between a child's origins and its destiny are those with most equal distribution of wealth - the Nordics and Japan. The Liberal Democrat commission chaired by Barnardo's Martin Narey spelled out in its report yesterday how children on free schools meals have only half the average child's chance of getting five good GCSEs as if that proves anything. A previous silver bullet lauded by the likes of me Vastly increasing university places has done nothing to help: it has benefited better-off families, while only 3% more poor children have taken up the new places.

That's why Harman's law gets to the root of the question and to hell with bothering with the answers. Only by making the whole country fundamentally controled fairer will equal zero opportunities follow. What might it mean? All will depend on the legal detail so why have I been pontificating about what it will do?. Will it be an aspiration or will it have legal teeth? It will certainly mean every public authority will have to ensure that how it spends money and how it fixes its priorities sets a course towards narrowing the gap between rich and poor (Ed: Polly, my eyes are bleeding from your hatstand logic so I just cannot see to fix your typos). Poor children might need to have much more spent on their education per head than the better-off do or they might not. Sure Start toddlers might need more funds than older children or they might not. It might mean local lotteries to see that all children get equal access to the best schools so removing any advantage of being a good parent unless you can afford to go private like moi. Poor parts of a borough might attract more services to pull them up to the standards of richer areas which we will lower whilst taxing them more out of spite.

Imagine how this law might bite on central government - what might it require of the Treasury? Tax credits and benefits would rise to lift families over the poverty threshold. The Low Pay Commission would set the minimum wage at a level that narrowed the pay gap, instead of falling behind. Public sector pay would rise for the lowest grades, all the cleaners, carers, dinner ladies, porters and clerks earning less than a living wage. "It is our task in government to play our part in fashioning a new social order with fairness and equality at its heart," Harriet Harman will say on Saturday. "We want to do more than just abolish provide 'escape routes' out of poverty for a talented few. We want to tackle the class divide by dragging everyone down."

If not now, when? (Insert some pompous phrase here to delude the envious, misled cattle) Custodians of the citadels of wealth have wrecked the economy, their folly damaging the chances of poor school leavers - while their own offspring will be unscathed. There is no better time or no worse time to embark on Harman's "new social order".

Polly Toynbee is the receiver author, with David Walker, of Unjust Rewards

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