As a former Secretary for International Development known for her stridency, former Birmingham Ladywood MP Clare Short used her talk to inspire the members of Equality West Midlands into reimagining a different society and culture in which everyone has the opportunities to succeed.
Clare opened her talk by noting that despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the United Kingdom has become one of the most unequal countries in the world, with social mobility particularly declining. Although the Gross Domestic Product per person in the UK is the 22nd highest in the world, the number of British people having to visit food banks has tripled over the course of six months- a third of these were children. Poor economic growth, stagnant and rising living costs have deeply impacted on the poorest in British society which is already weakened by the disparities in the income of the highest and lowest: the 10% at the top take home 31% of the national wealth, whilst the 10% lowest earners only received 1%.
This fact wasn’t properly challenged by the Labour government who ended up presiding over an environment where previously good jobs had their wages squeezed down, and various protections and benefits removed. Now the Coalition government’s austerity cuts are having the biggest impact on the working poor.
These developments, along with the erosion of the quality of employment and the erosion of the tax mean that the model of the welfare state held since 1945 is ultimately being eroded and the solutions which one could propose to tackle inequality through this model are no longer likely to work. Instead, the trend is for inequality to increase: the United States is the most unequal county in the world whilst the growth in African economies based on commodities has led to corruption and great disparities between the African elite and the rest of their peoples. Meanwhile, there is very little public debate in Western countries about the issue of inequality or the fact that the economics that underpinned the post-Second World War settlement are long-gone.
Additionally, as Clare lamented, left-leaning political figures are not organisationally or intellectually in a condition to provide good answers to these problems- even social democratic parties in Scandinavia are being routed. British parties are trapped into a cycle of short-term thinking dominated by the views of focus groups and an agenda set by the media. Consequently, Clare fears that as the financial sector is set to grossly expand their assets by the year 2050 to 9 times the value of the UK’s national income, we are set for another round of boom and bust in the future. Clare said that we are trapped with a bust system, creating ever growing inequality and insecurity and that in order to escape the system, we need to completely reshape our society and economy…
Clare called for politicians to focus on building a high-tech economy where education helps to develop the job prospects of young people, preparing them for working in high-quality jobs for good wages, instead of being constantly tested in the name of a global race. Additionally, Clare believes that a fundamental rethinking of Britain’s role in the world needs to accompany this transition. Part of the shift must include a greater emphasis on the development of the ‘green’ economy, creating lots of new jobs and opportunities.
Not changing course will have dire consequences for many people- the economy will grind along; wages will continue to drop; young people who are not necessarily academically gifted will continue to be failed by the education system. Additionally, Clare has a growing fear that people will turn in desperation to right wing parties promoting new forms of racism.
Not all is lost, however: the make-up of Britain is changing rapidly- Birmingham, for example, is a fine example of a multicultural city where the status quo is being challenged; the political capital of those people who wish to keep things the same is rapidly diminishing and politicians may soon find they are entirely behind the times. There are various historical examples of this phenomenon occurring again and again- but, as much as change relies on the public being revolted by, for example, the number of people using food banks, it also requires people who wish to bring about change to have a big idea that could bring about a ‘more wonderful’ future.
Clare urged everyone in the room who wanted to help to bring about this future to accept the reality of present circumstances and avail themselves of the interconnectedness of various campaigns- we can’t just solve one thing; we have to solve everything. She also urged us to campaign for more transparency: the large organisations who are not paying the tax they should be exposed- Clare suggested that this may encourage small businesses to join the progressive side.
In a world that appears in some ways to be mimicking that of 100 years ago, where a rising power is challenging the status quo, it is ever more important that we approach the problems of old with new and fresh ideas. Clare’s talk demonstrated that we need a debate about the kind of future we want our children and grandchildren to live in- we have the opportunity to close the inequality gap and make life better for everyone in society.