It's not fair! The Battle for Equality

Saturday 31 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Lecture Theatre 2

From the French revolutionary motto of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity!’ onwards, the battle for equality has been integral to politics. Now it seems ‘fairness’ is the political catchphrase of the day. Gordon Brown has pledged to be ‘the rock of stability and fairness upon which people stand’, close tax loopholes and provide extra support for those who ‘play by the rules’. Is ‘fairness’ just a platitude, a new word for old politics, or a means of ‘sharing out the pain’ of the recession? It has recently become fashionable to attribute all manner of social ills to inequality. The recent influential book The Spirit Level argues that unequal societies are bad not just for the poor, but for almost everyone. Economic growth, it claims, has largely finished its work and the emphasis should today be on spreading the wealth around. Some go further in claiming the pursuit of wealth makes us unhappy. Is there more to life than materialism?

The conventional narrative suggests the left-right struggle between equality and liberty was won by Thatcherite individualism. Inequality has increased in Anglo-Saxon societies, with the top 10% now earning nearly ten times more than the bottom 10%. Everything from crime and teenage pregnancy to a decline in community cohesion has been linked with this. For some, the financial crisis is proof that individualism, and even material aspiration, must be restrained. Equality must not be sacrificed on the altar of economic growth. Instead we should strive for a more stable and equal society. But is this an impoverished understanding of equality as ‘levelling-down’?  Is there really a choice to be made between economic growth and equality? And if inequality really is the problems, what’s the solution? Is equality an abstract, self-evident good, or does ‘equality’ only gain meaning when it is premised on a more free society too?

Listen to the session audio…

Other formats are available here

Karen Chouhan
race equality consultant; founder and director, Equanomics-UK; founder member and board director, 1990 Trust Roots Research Centre

Anna Minton
writer and journalist; author, Ground Control: fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Alex Hochuli
communications consultant, researcher and blogger based in São Paulo

Produced by
Alex Hochuli communications consultant, researcher and blogger based in São Paulo
Recommended readings
How messy it all is

More equality is a good thing and it’s an idea that’s worth defending. It would be nice if there were more politicians willing to stand up and defend it, however they saw fit. That may be wishful thinking. But so too is the idea of an evidence-based politics, which just opens the door to all the prevarications of joined-up thinking.

David Runciman, London Review of Books, 22 October 2009

Towards a better measure of well-being

Advances in research enable us now to develop broader measures of well-being. Health, education, security and social connectedness all are important to quality of life – but are not adequately reflected in GDP.

Joseph Stiglitz, Financial Times, 13 September 2009

What Matters

It would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society. In fact, in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago.

Walter Benn Michaels, London Review of Books, 27 August 2009

Spare a thought for the undeserving rich

Forget a High Pay Commission, making people’s earnings public would create a fairer society – and be more fun

David Aaronovitch, The Times, 19 August 2009

Equality row reveals a deeper rift for Labour

The meltdown at the human rights quango is more than a bureaucratic squabble. It is about the future of the Centre Left

Rachel Sylvester, The Times, 4 August 2009

Distorting the spirit of equality

The Spirit Level, a new book on why equal societies are better than unequal ones, fancies itself in the tradition of the French Revolution. In truth, it turns equality from a political goal into a therapeutic imperative.

Daniel Ben-Ami, spiked, 22 March 2009

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

Large inequalities of income in a society have often been regarded as divisive and corrosive, and it is common knowledge that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem.

Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, Allen Lane, 5 March 2009

Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work

Achieving mass democracy was the great triumph of the twentieth century. Learning to live with it will be the greatest achievement of the twenty-first century. A rising tide of discontent is posing a major crisis for systems of mass democracy: the evidence is clear to see in reduced turnout and party membership and in opinion surveys.

Gerry Stoker, Palgrave Macmillan, 7 July 2006

Session partners