Equality of what?
John Hutton’s speech to Progress today is causing a stir. (Here’s Polly Toynbee). Hutton argues that: "Rather than questioning whether huge salaries are morally justified, we should celebrate the fact that people can be enormously successful in this country. Rather than placing a cap on that success, we should be questioning why it is not available to more people." I wonder if he actually means different people, rather than more people. There are, after all, always going to be low-paid jobs in society. We may achieve greater social mobility but not everyone can be a city high-flyer all at the same time, no matter how highly skilled we all are. In the end, markets produce wage inequality, so the political decision is when – and to what extent – this inequality is acceptable or should be redressed through the state.
So the question for the government (and opposition parties) is where it stands on equality. Does it stand for meritocracy – which can produce huge inequalities – or something closer to equality of outcome as well as a fairer start for everyone? This is related to pledges to cut to poverty, but these don't quite answer the question. In Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party conference last year he flirted with both:
Not the old equality of outcome that discounts hard work and effort.
Not the old version of equality of opportunity – the rise of an exclusive meritocracy where only some can succeed and others are forever condemned to fail.
But a genuinely meritocratic Britain, a Britain of all the talents.
Where all are encouraged to aim high.
And all by their effort can rise.
A Britain of aspiration and also a Britain of mutual obligation where all play our part and recognise the duties we owe to each other.
Who said there are no big questions left in politics?