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Max Wind-Cowie: Equality shouldn’t be a dirty word for Conservatives

Picture 23 Max Wind-Cowie is a researcher at Demos, where he works on the Progressive Conservatism Project.

OK, don’t skip to the bottom to denounce me as an unhelpful pinko just yet – hear me out.  I used to believe that inequality was, possibly, the least important issue a government could concern itself with.  Thatcher’s last stand at the Despatch Box, and her swift dismissal of complaints from Simon Hughes and others about the gap between rich and poor, informed my view of this issue – that it simply wasn’t an issue at all.

But I have changed my mind and I now believe that conservatives need to revisit the equality debate.  It’s not that I’ve succumbed to a lefty concern for the fairness of the thing, I haven’t; it’s that it has become clear - in light of a great deal of evidence - that rampant inequality does damage to conservative values.  I am a conservative because I believe in the traditions, institutions and heritage that bind our country together; because I respect the law and favour order; because I believe that while the state is one tool for achieving social justice it is neither the only, nor the best. 

These virtues are actively damaged in our society by the massive and unjustified inequalities that people see around them everyday.  What is more, none of these conservative beliefs mean that we are necessarily predisposed to admiring or desiring an unequal society – they just mean that we have a different view of how entrenched inequality should be combated.

As I discovered whilst writing my recent pamphlet for the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos, Everyday Equality, there are real community problems that arise when inequalities go utterly unchecked.  Crime and anti-social behaviour occur at a higher rate in communities that are unequal (greater even than in communities that are simply poor or deprived), volunteering is less frequent and less embedded and political and community engagement are muted.  The reality is that very unequal communities are simply less conservative – less community spirited, law abiding and democratically involved – than equal ones.

This has profound affects on the ability of the Conservative Party to deliver its agenda.  A Britain in which communities look after themselves, people engage and are enthused by the localist agenda and empowered neighbourhoods check anti-social behaviour is more difficult to establish in a Britain that ignores the corrosive effect of everyday inequalities on those very communities. 

But that’s not to say that we need to abandon our governing principles.  Yes, we might recognise that inequality is a problem but, as conservatives, there are limits to what we are willing or prepared to do about it.  We know that over-mighty intervention by the state rarely (if ever) generates good outcomes and we know that, on the whole, the price of inequality is worth paying in exchange for the beauty of meritocracy and functioning social mobility.  So what is the answer to this dilemma?  How can we address the worst symptoms of inequality whilst retaining our commitment to limited government action and personal agency?

There are three principles that should underpin the conservative approach:

  • Visible inequalities matter the most. The inequalities that people see every day, that they experience in their lives and that they suffer from at work are the most important. These localised inequalities cause the most resentment, undermine cohesion most directly and are the source of the greatest angst.
  • When the state is the boss, the state must lead by example. The public sector must serve as the example of how a more equal remuneration policy can work. This is the case both morally, because the state should do the right thing when it is directly responsible, and practically, because it is the area over which the state has the greatest existing control.
  • A nudge needs a stick behind it. If the state decides that progress needs to be made on inequality then it is right to extend that challenge to the private spheres of business and industry. The aim should be cooperation, but where cooperation is not forthcoming a reasoned and appropriate system of rebuke must be available.

These principles point to an approach that starts small and starts with the state itself – rather than pursuing a utopian vision and attempting to impose it wholesale on private industry.  The first step in realising these principles is to look at the deep-rooted inequities in the public sector; because this is a sector which is disproportionately better paid than its private peers and because inequality within the sector is problematic and getting worse.

A couple of examples: the chief executive of an NHS strategic health authority can earn a maximum of £204,048 a year. When compared with the pay for an NHS employee at the bottom of the ladder - £13,233 per annum – this represents an extraordinary pay ratio of 15 to 1. In local authorities, this pattern is repeated: the lowest salary paid to a full time employee of Slough local authority, for example, is £12, 994 while the chief executive is paid up to £157,479, a ratio of 11 to 1.  In practical terms this means that our public sector happily pays a nurse up to 15 times less than her manager.  Now, possibly, there is an argument that such enormous gulfs are necessary between the public sector rich and the public sector poor but that case is rather dented by the fact that Britain has an example of a public service (a terrifically well run and demanding one at that) where pay ratios are substantially and deliberately smaller. 

In the Army, the area of public service where cohesion is perhaps most vital, the pay ratio between the top operational rank (brigadier) and the very bottom (a new entrant still in training) is just 7 to 1. What is more, if one takes into account the fact that most soldiers will quickly move from entrance to the rank of private (as soon as they have completed their training) the ratio shrinks to just 6 to 1.  I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about why an organisation that depends on high morale and commitment, and which performs a vital public service in the face of unparalleled challenges, places such a premium on maintaining a reasonable and equitable gap between its highest and lowest paid. 

Inequalities within our public sector are as damaging as those between it and the private sector.  They hinder morale, undermine commitment to public service and artificially devalue the important business of delivery in favour of the managerialism that has infested the state.  The Conservative Party’s wage freeze on the highest paid is a good first step but it does not go far enough – we need to start the messy business of actively reducing the wages of the public sector rich in order to reduce the absurd gap between them and the public sector poor.  When the taxpayer is paying the wages there is no excuse for its continued bankrolling of excessive and detrimental inequality.


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