What Equality? – Equality of Voice

‘We need to be clear how equality, and what kind of equality (including of what), services our notion of the good society.’

To give David Miliband some credit, he is asking the right question. It’s not clear from his New Statesman sally whether he has the right answer.

As characterised by the older brother, ‘Reassurance Labour’ believes that the state is the primary bulwark against the inequities and inefficiencies thrown up by a globalised market economy. It seems that David M. believes that empowered regions and communities should be cast in this role.

Now in general terms, I think David has a point. But there are major gaps in his thinking. As he clearly acknowledges, the state (and frequently bodies stretching their remit even wider – the EU and beyond) must set the framework for individual rights and responsibilities. This is necessary to ensure that the relationship between devolved structures is one of co-operation and constructive competition rather than the beggar-my-neighbour variety.

But there are other crucial relationships about which David says nothing. These are those between the power of business on the one side and communities and individuals on the other. If the state has been unable to resist the power of big business and finance to capture huge rewards while making the public responsible for clearing up its messes, there is no hope for smaller regions and communities. As it stands, Miliband senior’s recipe is one of surrender to the interests of money-profit. Under these conditions ‘growth’ means little more than bigger bonuses and more efficient tax-avoidance.

Yet the critique of the state is not without justification. A state politically and necessarily economically strong enough to stand up to the power of capital leads to its own forms of corruption and distortion. I am sure more social democrats of the type David is criticising know this than he gives credit for. And he should note that his focus on economic growth in its conventional sense is very much a centralising aim, and so in contradiction to his desire for devolved political power. The measurement of aggregate economic activity and targeting it for policy only really makes sense from the point of view of a powerful state. In fact, with effective distribution of wealth and power it may well be that the focus for economic activity shifts from just more of it to better and less resource-wasteful varieties.

The problem is of course to understand how else to match democratic with economic power, if not with a big state. I think this lies in the answer to David’s question that I quoted above. This answer is to establish a particular equality that citizens can carry into any sphere in which they are participants. This is neither equality of outcome, nor equality of opportunity (although linked to both), but equality of voice. What this means is that within the ‘birthright to have all basic needs met’, that David quotes approvingly from the Commission on Social Justice report, is an equal right to be heard on any decision that affects us. This means that pure majoritarian democracy and shareholder capitalism must be deemed unfit for purpose, and replaced with genuine dialogue at the appropriately devolved level, whether that is regional or local government, communities or businesses.

It’s important to understand that equality of voice does not mean the right to have your own way. To get that you have to make your case and find common ground with others. But it’s surprising how much more often that is possible when the opportunity is honestly given.

Diarmid Weir writes on economics and politics at http://www.futureeconomics.org

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