In 2001 Roy Hattersley Objects to Blair's vision of meritocracy 

The Guardian  Sun 24 Jun 2001 

It has been a difficult four years for the Labour Party's unrepentant social democrats. One by one, the policies which define our philosophy have been rejected by the Prime Minister. Until 7 June we consoled ourselves with a forlorn hope.

The confidence which came from a second victory would, we pretended, encourage the Government to reclaim the principles it had abandoned. In fact, success has emboldened the Prime Minister to move further to the Right.

A delegate to last week's Socialist Education Association's annual conference expressed the frustration that thousands of party members feel. 'For 18 years we told ourselves that one day the Tories would be out and things would get better. They have got worse.'

He was speaking of the six-year shift from unequivocal support for comprehensive secondary education, through the protection of the 160 remaining grammar schools to the encouragement of covert selection under the disguise of specialist schools.

On other occasions, he might have given more examples of what he would have described as betrayal - 'reforms' of the legal system which cruelly curtail civil liberties, the privatisation of air traffic control, the conversion of the private finance initiative from the attraction of private investment into the public services to the imposition of commercial management and the competitive ethos on hospitals and schools.

During the first four years, we all took refuge in the thought that we had always disagreed with some items of Labour policy. And we told ourselves that Tony Blair - openly contemptuous of ideology - would understand that 'pursuing social justice' is a vacuous platitude unless it is given practical meaning by the poor being given 'an equal start as well as an open road'.

But after casting round to find himself a philosophy - including announcing his support for The Third Way and then calling a conference to decide what it is - Tony Blair discovered a big idea. His destiny is to create a meritocracy. Unfortunately meritocracy is not the form of society which social democrats want to see.

Now my party not only pursues policies with which I disagree; its whole programme is based on a principle that I reject. One thing is clear: I cannot retain both membership and self respect unless I make apparent that much of what the Labour Party now proposes is wrong.

Between 1997 and 2001 I balanced the introduction of student loans in place of maintenance grants against the extension of nursery education, and the increase in help for the working poor against the neglect of the chronically and unavoidably unemployed. Now that the Labour Party - at least according to its leader - bases its whole programme on an alien ideology, I, and thousands of likeminded party members, have to decide if our loyalty is to a name or to an idea.

I have tried to reconcile myself to the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for meritocracy with the hope that, not being really interested in ideas, he does not know what it is. Unfortunately his policies more and more reflect a real belief in the sort of society which R.H. Tawney satirised in the parable of the lily pond.

A frog sat on the bank and croaked to the tadpoles that they could become successful amphibians if only they possessed his intelligence and determination. For most of them the metamorphosis was impossible.

Meritocracy removes the barriers to progress which block the path of the clever and industrious. But the notion of social mobility on which it is based is, to most of the children of the inner cities, a cruel joke. A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation.

By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority. The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape. Meritocracy only offers shifting patterns of inequality.

The term meritocracy was invented by Michael Young in a fable which 'aims to present both sides of the case'. It contains an equation which lies at the heart of the argument about what sort of society we want to see: IQ+effort=merit.

Both intelligence and enthusiasm are inherited characteristics. So Young concludes, as all socialists should, that 'being a member of the lucky sperm club confers no moral right to advantage'. Yet that is what meritocracy aims to provide. To them that hath, more shall be given.

To add to the unfairness, characteristics which enable the 'meritorious' to succeed are made more visible by a middle-class upbringing. That is why, as Cardiff University research reveals, the meritocratic academies, which are called specialist schools, take a disproportionate percentage of their pupils from prosperous families. Education selection always works that way.

Labour still claims that it hopes to eliminate child poverty. Yet we know that without redistribution and the greater equality it provides, poverty will remain. So, not surprisingly, during the general election campaign Tony Blair was asked on television why he was not prepared to increase taxes on the rich in order to help the poor.

He replied that increasing the top rates of income tax would drive entrepreneurs from the country - without explaining that they would be unlikely to go to those other European Union members where both direct taxes and gross domestic product are higher than in Britain.

The second part of his answer must have chilled thousands of Labour Party members to the bone. The object of his policy was, he said, a general expansion in wealth. If that happened the higher earners would drag the poor along behind them. The Labour Party now believes in the trickle-down effect.

Yet Labour Party luminaries - who once thought themselves far to the Left of the position I now hold and have always held - appear to accept this nonsense without question. For some, intellectual subservience is the price of preferment. That is at least a rational reason for their conduct. But what about the superannuated and tyro firebrands who have no hope of or wish for office? Why do they not stand up for what they believe?

I shared their tribal pleasure at the Conservative defeat. But opposing one political party is not sufficient reason for belonging to another. The certain knowledge that the Conservative Party would be a worse government than Labour is not enough to sustain what used to be a party of principles.

At this moment Labour stands for very little that can be identified with social democracy. And the Prime Minister's adoption of what is essentially a free-for-all philosophy presents party members with a desperate choice. We could resign or we could sulk in our tents like Patroclus.

Or, believing that the party does not belong to Tony Blair, we could rise up against the coup d'état which overthrew the legitimate philosophy. Too many party members have chosen to retire hurt. I at least shall fight on.