Mike Wayne unpicks Liz Truss’s recent speech on inequality and finds that it scores some hits against parts of the left
Never underestimate your enemy was the intelligent watchword on social media following Liz Truss’s recent speech on ‘the new fight for fairness’ at the Centre for Policy Studies. The ranks of the current Conservative party may be bursting with mediocrity but they only need one or two leading figures to win, as Dominic Cummings’ role in using Brexit to steer the Tories to electoral triumph shows. This is because while the enemy – at least in their public figures – may not be giants of the political stage, they have power on their side to make up the deficit.
Liz Truss is certainly a deficit, but she or the Tories more generally, have some backroom strategic thinkers who are monitoring what is going on in the left and they can see well enough, that in the game of thrones that is the battle for hegemony (moral and political leadership), a giant flank is exposed.
Truss’s speech was heavy on opportunism, hypocrisy and historical revisionism that would have made Stalin blush. It also seemed to flag up a possible future attack on the protected characteristics legislation currently on the statute books, which gives vital legal leverage against long-standing discriminations. But it certainly scored some hits against a left subordinated to liberalism that has been aligned with economic liberalism since at least the rise of Tony Blair in the mid-1990s.
This liberalism is certainly not restricted to ‘Blairites’ however but marks a more generalised saturation of the labour movement and the left across the board, from the trade unions, the Labour party, all the way out to the hard revolutionary left. Political cultures are hybrid affairs and there are often secret affinities between different, even opposed political stances.
Corbynism by no means represented an unambiguous break with this neoliberal liberalism. The fact that members of the trade unions and the Labour party effectively chose staying in Europe over a wealth redistribution project under Corbyn, is one indication of this. This soft Labour left has been sawing away at its connections with the working class and with a political economy project designed to address inequality, for many years. Accusations against the ‘woke left’ and a general tendency towards ‘virtue signalling’ are shorthand recognitions that symbolism and assertions of identity have floated away from material reality and real change.
Into the breach comes Truss. So let us first set aside the opportunism, such as the attack on the left for ‘tolerating antisemitism’. After all, no Tory is going to inspect the mouth of that particular gift horse, conjured into existence by The Guardian and much of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Let us set aside the hypocrisy inherent in the words ‘Tory Equalities Minister’, with her reheated meritocratic ideology of ‘equality of opportunity’. Let us put aside the historical revisionism, not only the last ten years of Tory austerity that have smashed their way through the lives of millions of people but the role of the Tories in accelerating inequality since the 1980s. "The Labour party made the ridiculous claim that ‘our country has never been more unequal’ with even Channel 4 concluding it ‘does not stand up to scrutiny" Truss whined. Yes in truth ‘Never’ (at the last general election) probably was a hostage to fortune, but Channel Four also found that since the much-despised 1970s, when the share of the national income by the top 1% had been pushed down to 3%, inequality of that sort took off under the Tories and predictably grew further under New Labour (the 1% taking nearly 9% of national income by 2007). But Truss is prepared to admit that everything is not hunky-dory in the field of economic ‘opportunity’.
Mysteriously passing over Tory agency in the last ten years in expanding the ranks of the poor, with a vague reference to the failure of ‘successive governments’, she emerges into the light of the present with the triumphant declaration that it was ‘this government that finally tore down this social taboo when we were elected to level up the country and toppled the Red Wall, turning it Blue.’ Yes, we all know that the gulf between reality and rhetoric is vast, but it is a gulf that is precisely papered over by power.
All Truss and Co are offering is an individualistic ‘opportunity for all’ fantasy that openly pours scorn on social analysis that discovers structural problems. It is a wish-fulfilment that meritocracy can be squared with fairness in a world where the already wealthy ensure that their talentless offspring can get anywhere in life, including the green benches of the Commons or the patronage stuffed Lords. Watching Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard newly ennobled as Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia (!) I felt there was a problem with Truss’s declaration that the Tories were the party of ‘[f]airness, not favouritism’ but I could not quite put my finger on it. Perhaps I was blindsided by Truss’s comprehensive school background? Yet despite the absurdities, it does not matter, not just because of their power, but because, frankly, much of the left are away with the fairies as well.
Targeting this section of the left’s infatuation with identity politics, Truss cited Foucault and a "postmodernist philosophy…that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours. In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view – truth and morality are all relative."
One can see why Truss must lash out at the thought of ‘societal power structures’ if you have hitched your wagon to meritocracy which dissolves power structures in favour of free-floating individuals. Perhaps it is too much to ask that Truss show a glimmer of recognition that possessive individualism is its own kind of moral relativism and is powerfully resistant to accepting the scale as well as the evidential causes of inequality.
But she is not wrong that Foucault was one of many apostles of a new revved up school of linguistic relativism, where language constructs its own internal system of plausibility and ‘truth’. Language, meaning and intelligibility no longer had to have any relationship to social reality or indeed to the materialism of nature.
This philosophical export from academia is not harmless especially when the gap between word and reality can be sealed by an authoritarian cancel culture and dogmatic refusal to debate that has become prevalent within liberal and left political cultures. As Truss gleefully noted, the left has turned "a blind eye to practices that undermine equality [such as] failing to defend single-sex spaces." When truths fall out of the mouths of Tories, beware, something has gone seriously wrong. And when Marxists are justly accusing liberals of anti-democratic intolerance, well, you have to smile at the historical ironies.
At the same time that Starmer is burying the Corbyn project, it is interesting to see Truss and the Tories speaking a sub-Corbyn language of class inequality (albeit with the carefully divisive framing of the ‘white working-class’) and geographical inequality. "There is a deeper wage gap between London and the regions than between men and women, with an average full-time salary a third higher in the capital than in the North East of England." Truss should be careful, as these words sound suspiciously like they are identifying ‘societal power structures’ but on the other hand, these are words that will resonate with the new Blue Wall.
The danger for the left is that sections of the northern working class are further integrated into a new Conservative hegemony, while the increasingly middle class left, cut off from the working class, succumb further to the moral and political leadership of liberalism. That is not inevitable, but the left needs to restore its commitments to political economy, social and natural materialism, evidence and reason in order to advance equality.
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