Faced with a divided, unequal society, Labour emerged and changed the rules of the game. Once more faced with a country divided in a whole variety of ways, Labour must do so again, argues PROFESSOR TREVOR DAVIES. 


We live in a time of pulling apart.  It’s been going on for a while but we hadn’t noticed.  Now, it’s obvious.

On Monday the OECD reminded us the income of rich and poor in Britain has pulled wider apart than in most other developed countries.  The big shift happened in the 80s and 90s leading to 2005 when the top 1% earned 14.3% of GDP, up from 7.1% in 1970. In 2008 the top tenth had an income of £55000 a year on average, while for the bottom tenth it was just £4700. Three years later we should today expect the gap to have grown, in our time of austerity – for some.

Our attitudes towards each other don’t rebel against that huge division. The insecurity it creates make us turn on others.

On Wednesday the National Centre for Social Research told us that only 40% of Scots thought we should pay taxes to improve health and educational benefits.  Ten years ago it was 60%.  Over half of us think that benefits are too high (up from one-third in the 1980s) and nearly two-thirds think that parents who don’t want to work are to blame for child poverty.  Not the average income of £4700.

The research published this week into reasons why young people rioted in the summer put the blame, not on ‘parents’ as many believe nor on ‘gangs’ or ‘criminality’ as the Prime Minister urged us to believe, but on poverty – to get desirable ‘stuff’ other people had but they didn’t – and on the heavy authority of the police.

Last week we saw results of surveys which say that nearly half of us in the UK now want to pull away from our cousins in Europe and leave the EU.  Here at home, the urge to pull away from cousins in the rest of the UK grows stronger too.  That’s the same urge that we see in recent videos on YouTube of women indecently berating passengers on public transport for being one of “too many foreigners.” And of a Prime Minister whose only task in Europe is to protect ‘British interests’.  We’re us – you’re something else.

There were stories last week too about the growing verbal and physical public abuse aimed at disabled people – many are called ‘scroungers’ to their face because, it is assumed, they’re not working but drawing benefit. ‘Gay Boy’ is a common term of abuse in schools. We’re us – you’re something else.  And then, to cap it all, the wretched Jeremy Clarkson’s ‘joke’ that striking nurses should be shot in front of their families.  We are becoming more angry, more intolerant. More disdainful of those beneath us.  We live in a time of pulling apart.

The current policies of the UK coalition government make that worse. Those policies, official figures explain, target the poor, who are certainly beneath our millionaire cabinet. Their misguided economic policies will likely push us into a decade or two of stagnation, of joblessness on a wide scale and of millions of young people with no hope for the future. A time of even more pulling apart.

The urgent task of the Left now is, as ever, to work towards a time of growing together, because all the worldwide evidence shows that the more equal and cohesive a society, the greater its well-being.  That needs a big shift in the rules of the game.

Today’s economic circumstances and our national debt burden should not make us timid. They should add urgency and a sense of opportunity.  In historical terms our national debt is not high, though it has to come down. If we look to the last time when it was significantly higher than now, at the end of World War Two, we achieved huge social reforms and a real sense of common purpose.  And the last time Britain saw such a long sustained decline in living standards as government policies now lead us towards – in the 1870s and 1880s – we saw the expansion of the co-operative movement and the birth of the Labour Party.

Those were all game changers.  And if we are now once again to change the rules of the game by which we organise our economy and live with each other in our society and in our world, we’ll need a similar keen sense of values.

We would do worse than start with an even older set of values than those of the 1880s – liberty, equality, fraternity (or in these non-gender specific times, ‘solidarity’!).

How does the left reclaim the banner of liberty, stolen and sullied by the neo-cons? What would a more tolerant and free society look like, where freedom and security are in proper balance, where security is seen, not as a burden, but as a springboard to  a fuller life, where freedom to forge a better life belongs to the poor and disabled as well as the rich and strong?

What would a moral economy look like, where the fruits of enterprise are measured in terms of the wealth of all of us, not just a few, where companies see the development of social capital to be just as important as economic capital, where the extremes of wealth and poverty are expunged and our current enormous subsidies to the rich ended?

What does solidarity mean in practice? How can we craft the laws and institutions that strengthen respect for each other and restrain powerful private and sectional interests? How can we embed in the way we do things the knowledge that the well-being of all of us benefits each one of us? How do we get to the time when the public realm is at least as important as the private, when we all know we achieve more together than we do apart?

In short – how do we change the rules of the game? We’ve done it before.  Time to mobilise our thinkers.

Trevor Davies is an honorary professor of urban studies at the University of Glasgow and a former Labour councillor in Edinburgh.