Question 9: How effective has Labour been in promoting social equality?


Equality has always been an aim of the British left although the way it has been defined has varied. In left wing thought public ownership and proper social provision have been key to allowing the individual to flourish. There was some consensus that the Attlee government pursued an egalitarian agenda although it was noted that the 1924 government had some success because of the Wheatley Act which provided subsidies to build public housing. The construction of the welfare state in its modern form after 1945 is, however, usually the measure of Labour’s commitment to equality with a National Health Service free at the point of use. Andrew Seaton (author of the book Our NHS) argues that Labour has always been concerned during its history with the health of working people although proposals differed throughout the twentieth century. Looking back, he observes 'the run-away success of the NHS as a distinctly left-wing political project has occasionally crowded out a wider conception of 'health' in Britain, and how it is influenced not just by access to medical services but also factors like income, housing, or the quality of the air that people breathe'. The focus on health can sometimes overshadow other egalitarian measures.

Other egalitarian moves included race relations legislation in the 1960s and 1970s and the abolition of Section 28 and introduction of civil partnerships by Tony Blair who also introduced the minimum wage. Pat Thane emphasises the way successive Labour governments have promoted gender equality (more than the Tories): the Equal Pay Act, 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act, 1975.

Patrick Diamond noted that the Wilson and Blair governments were effective in combatting household poverty. They did not, however, reduce wider economic inequality which is difficult to do. Glen O'Hara concurs with reference to New Labour which he views as attacking poverty but not inequality as such because the rich kept getting richer. It accelerated equality of opportunity 'but that is not quite the same thing as equality'.

A number of historians pointed to the success of the Blair governments in reducing child poverty. This was based on the understanding that, if it failed to deal with this, governments would perpetually be trying to sort out the problems this caused in later life. This inspired Sure Start and other initiatives. New Labour's focus on 'education, education, education' was very important in social mobility. Jeremy Nuttall argues 'The party has probably, in some ways, done more for that aspirational middle third of society, through educational and employment opportunity, than it has for the very poorest, simply because the problems faced by the latter are so complex and multi-layered, as well as difficult to generate electoral support to focus on'.

A vital part of the promotion of equality was the development of new universities, polytechnics and the Open University in the 1960s which opened higher education to working class people in an unprecedented way. Harold Wilson himself believed his greatest achievement was the Open University. However, the decision by New Labour to start charging student fees and the subsequent closure of many courses has reduced opportunities for poorer students. Keith Laybourn (Huddersfield) argues 'A new Labour government will have to reverse the recent trends and ensure that all who can benefit from higher education can do so without the impediment of the financial restrictions of class'.