The research commissioned by the Fabian Society and carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is causing quite a stir in the looming battle for control of the party between mainstream Labour and the New Labour careerists. It purports to reveal that most people feel more harshly about the poor than the rich. The latter are seen as having earned their pay through hard work, natural talent and the importance of their economic contribution. The former are seen as poor because of their own fault and they are merely getting what they deserve. Benefit cheats at the bottom end are widely identified and resented, while tax cheats at the top are much less visible and do not excite the same anger at all. Of course these findings, which are not especially original, point up the repeated dilemma for the Left in a serious recession. Though inequality in Britain may have reached more extreme levels than at any time since the Edwardian era a century ago, what gets through to people at times of deep insecurity is that whilst they themselves are desperately struggling to make ends meet against the economic odds, others are perceived to be protected from reality by benefits come what may, without any effort on their part. How does the Left deal with this working class moralism which goes far deeper than many realise?
First, the Left has to explain, as it so often has to, that the dilemma posed is a false one. It is not the case that either the Left has to keep to its principled purpose of reducing social inequality or abandon the poor in order to keep on-side with so-called Middle England. New Labour will of course naturally pander to that latter populism. But the task for the Left is rather to get across the deeper message that both the poor and those on middle incomes are victims of the same underlying crisis – namely the credit crunch and economic meltdown brought about by the collapse of neoliberal finance capitalism because of the gross recklessness of the bankers, and that’s where their wrath should be targeted.
The second lesson for the Left is that after nearly two decades of Thatcherism and then more than another decade of pseudo-Thatcherite New Labour, with political education in the Labour Party almost withered away and a vicious anti-scrounger, anti-immigrant, anti-union tabloid culture virtually unchallenged, it’s hardly surprising there’s such ignorance about the harsh division of Britain along class and money lines. De-regulation, privatisation and an unbridled market are all forces for segregation and divisiveness and for evaluating people on market criteria rather than real social value. But that’s all the more reason for challenging head-on the monetised culture of human worth rather than some of its victims.
Thirdly, nobody wants to defend those who cheat and abuse the system, whether poor or rich. What the Left does have to do much more vigorously however is to set out the full facts that tax cheats at the top cost the country thousands times more than benefit cheats at the bottom as Richard Murphy of Taxresearch has so powerfully demonstrated (his estimate being that tax avoidance by the super-rich amounts to some £12bn a year). Working class moralism should at least be tempered by the truth.