The former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley has insisted that meritocracy and equal opportunities are not sufficient to achieve a just society. He called for economic equality instead.
Hattersley made the comments while delivering the Salter Lecture, the annual event of the Quaker Socialist Society.
Despite Hattersley's history of conflict with trades unions when he was a minister in the 1970s, he insisted that he was not prepared to cross British Airways picket lines.
The Quaker magazine The Friend reports that Hattersley was applauded by an audience of around 400 as he encouraged them to become “evangelists” for equality. Commenting on Tony Blair's insistence that he wanted more millionaires, Hattersley said, “I am in favour of people being millionaires in their primary income and less than millionaires after they’ve been taxed a bit”.
He attacked recent Labour governments for presiding over a increase in the gap between rich and poor, and said that Labour would have won the recent general election if they had stood up for equality.
Hattersley argued that meritocracy does not lead to equality, as an “open road” has little meaning when economic conditions allow some to move faster than others.
And he passionately attacked the idea that selective education should allow people to “escape” poverty. He said he would rather change “the conditions from which only a few are allowed to escape”.
There was laughter when Hattersley became so enthused about the recent book The Spirit Level that he encouraged the audience to rush off to buy it rather than listen to him. The book’s authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, provide extensive evidence of much lower rates of crime, drug-taking and unwanted pregnancy in more equal societies.
Hattersley argued that equality leads to freedom, giving the example of taxing a billionaire who might then “not be free to take his yacht to Scandinavia”, but the pensioners who benefited might be “free to take railway journeys… and to turn on the electric heater”.
He urged his audience to take the initiative and promote equality with confidence. “We have to evangelise,” he insisted, “Nobody will believe it unless we argue for it”.