13 Feb 2010

'Fair is worth fighting for'

I have been hitting the streets as a general election candidate. Given that Windsor has been a safe Tory seat since 1874, I have a fight on my hands. But I am not going to slack. The Green Party is stressing its social agenda under the slogan "Fair is worth fighting for."

Unfair has been the mantra of the political mainstream for too long. Thatcher, aided by the tabloid press and the International Monetary Fund assault on Britain in the 1970s, was a keen advocate of greed is good. The greed consensus argues that if the rich get richer the whole economy grows and even the poorest benefit. Wealth generates innovation and inequality sharpens appetites and makes us all work harder.

Thatcher's policies were maintained by the now forgotten grey man of British politics John Major, who privatised the railways. Blair continued the greed agenda and was a well-known fan of the super-rich. Brown has done little to reverse the trend. The Liberal Democrats have largely dumped their social and ecological wing and also advocate a market approach.

All three parties are keen to cut government spending. The bankers lost the money and we will all have to pay.

We have, as the late Chris Harman noted, a form of zombie capitalism - the capitalism of light regulation led to catastrophe but the financial disaster means that market-based policies such as spending cuts and privatisation are now at the centre of the agenda.

Right-wing think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute, together with the right-wing daily newspapers, have created a climate where inequality has become increasing acceptable.

The results are clear for all to see. A recent government report Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK showed a yawning gap between rich and poor. The top 10 per cent of the population now have 100 times the wealth of the bottom 10 per cent.

The newly created Equality Trust is fighting for justice and I commend its work to all Star readers. It is asking parliamentary candidates to pledge to work for equality. So far Gerald Kaufman, several Labour candidates and lots of Greens have signed up. We should demand that all parliamentary candidates sign the pledge.

The trust is promoting Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's book The Spirit Level, which uses exhaustive statistical analysis to refute the greed-is-good argument. It shows that societies with high levels of inequality have high levels of ill health, family breakdown, crime and other problems.

Inequality is even bad for the super-rich, the authors argue controversially. The Economist concedes that this "is a sweeping claim, yet the evidence, here painstakingly marshalled, is hard to dispute."

The Equality Trust advocates economic democracy, observing: "It is in the workplace that wealth is created, income differences are first established and where we are most likely to be subjected to hierarchical ranking. But businesses do not have to be run as profit-making cash-cows where the employees simply serve the interests of rich external shareholders."

Those of us who want a society that works and an economy which is ecologically sustainable must champion the work of the Equality Trust.

Greed corrodes society. On a finite planet enough must replace excess. At the Copenhagen climate conference Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez encouraged people to read the French author Herve Kempf's book How The Rich Are Destroying The Earth.

Chavez noted that the richest 500 million - 7 per cent - of the global population create 50 per cent of CO2 emissions.

It seems that greed is everywhere. While a tiny minority get obscenely fat, the poor become poorer. The new chief executive of Marks and Spencers Mark Bolland has just said Yes to a £12 million pay package.

Many charities that people donate to employ executives who earn over £100,000. MPs' expenses are just one manifestation of the principle that an elite can grow fat at the expense of society.

We need not just an aspiration for a fairer society but effective policies. Whatever good has been done by family credits and other Labour Party policies, it is clear that the basic economic structure delivers inequality.

Neoliberal globalisation means that companies move production to countries with low wages. This pulls down wages across the globe. Policies of privatisation put wealth in the hands of the few. The destruction of council housing, a crusade by Thatcher in the 1980s, has accelerated inequality.

Economic democracy has to mean what it says - giving workers and consumers control of businesses. Mutuals and co-operatives are a step in the right direction.

Where public expenditure cuts are necessary they should be in Trident, identity cards, the war in Iraq and MPs' expenses. Banks should be made into publicly owned mutuals. And we must never forget that while cuts are necessary, the present economic system put the greed of speculators at its centre causing chaos. Why should we pay for the crisis of a corrupt elite?

A Trade Union Freedom Act that strengthens collective bargaining is necessary and the campaign for equality has to be global or the jobs will keep on leaving Britain.

Back in 1759 the best-known advocate of the market Adam Smith made the case for equality, arguing: "The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."

Perhaps we should point this out to the greed-advocating Adam Smith Institute.

The Equality Trust needs to flesh out policies that work to promote justice. Equally any attempt to redistribute wealth means taking on powerful vested interests, interests that through the control of the media have enormous influence.

Nonetheless the work of the Equality Trust is to be commended and should be promoted in the forthcoming general election.

I am sure that, while Star readers may vote for different parties, we can all unite in promoting economic democracy - the foundation for a fair future.

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