Imagine you are a Government minister whose party is dogged by accountability scandals, trailing badly in the polls and squarely in lame duck territory from a policy perspective. Imagine as well that you had recently taken (or been thrown) the reins of the department responsible for narrowing spatial inequalities but under which they had in fact widened. How would you frame a speech to set the tone for your tenure in this role?
Well if you are John Denham you clearly abdicate any responsibility for this fact by trying to claim that people don’t care about inequality anyway. Representative democracy has been brought low in recent times and many think it is on its knees. A cloying and calculated attendance to ‘middle class voters’ interests is hardly the shot in the arm it requires. The irony of Denham’s comments is that measures to tackle inequality under New Labour have been overwhelmingly focused on the poor because it was seen as more politically saleable, they were even famously (and oxymoronically) ‘intensely relaxed’ about people becoming ‘filthy rich’. Anyone who suggested otherwise was patronised into the political wilderness.
The hardest and arguably most important role a politician can play is to lead people where they fear to go, to promote a sense of shared purpose and collective responsibility amongst their constituency, even if the benefits are not immediately obvious. We know that inequality is bad for us all, rich and poor alike. John Denham and his advisors most likely know it too but don’t care to share it with the rest of us. There is a risk afterall, an inspirational speech on the issue might lose even more votes to the Conservatives. No, better to out-Tory them, appeal to narrow self-interest and perpetuate untruths about why redistribution matters. That’s the way to restore our faith in party politics.