When ethics is the wrong way

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour conference today is being trailed as calling for a “something for something” culture (inspiring slogan, there, Ed…) in which “hard-working”, “responsible” people are rewarded instead of “the wrong people with the wrong values”.

This, of course, allows Ed to proceed with an “even-handed” exercise in triangulation, simultaneously bashing the “asset strippers” of the financial system and those for whom “benefits are too easy to come by” (a statement which, as one disillusioned activist observed, only highlights the fact that Ed has probably never had to claim benefits in his life).

This “evenhandedness” is a common trait of the liberal left (of which I would regard myself as a member, I should admit). If you have a self-image of reasonable moderation, evenhanded “I condemn both this and this” rhetoric helps bolster that. See, for example, this New York Times article which felt it necessary to include an attack on unionised teachers refusing to do more work for no more money in order to make its attack on Amazon.com’s ruthless exploitation of its workers more “evenhanded”.

The problem arises from having an overly-ethicalised view of politics and society, rather than one which takes into account the importance of social class. A class analysis isn’t about a “class war” on “poshness”, however, but about recognising how privilege and power work together in self-reinforcing ways.

The fundamental problem in society is not that we have “bad” asset strippers where we should have “good” wealth creators (though we certainly do), or “bad” benefits claimants where we should have “good” hard-working families. The problem is that we have an economic and political system that has an inherent tendency to transfer wealth and power to those who already have it, regardless of the motivations of the people involved.

Labour ought to be the party that recognises this, that recognises the need to pursue policies that address imbalances of power within society, and that encourage solidarity rather than inviting people to blame their problems on their neighbours (“hard-working families” vs “scroungers”, etc.).

I had hoped in the past that Ed Miliband (who I think, in his heart of hearts, does recognise this) might be able to articulate it more clearly than his immediate predecessors. Sadly, it looks like he now prefers to give triangulation another go.

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