This essay, on the problems in the ways we think of poverty and indequality, was my Observer column this week. It was published 29 January 2023, under the headline “Focusing on diversity means we miss the big picture. It’s class that shapes our lives”.

“There is no primary poverty left in this country,” Margaret Thatcher told the Catholic Herald in 1978, five months before she became prime minister. “There may be poverty because people don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings” but such poverty is the product not of social policy but of “personality defect”. Almost two decades later, in her 1996 Nicholas Ridley Memorial Lecture, six years after she had been pushed out of No 10 by her own MPs, she insisted again that “poverty is not material but behavioural”.

In between those two speeches, during her 11 years in power, the reality of Thatcherite policies, of reducing the top rate of taxation while cutting benefits, of devastating manufacturing industry and destroying trade unions, led to a huge increase in both poverty and inequality though the 1980s.

The mantra of poverty being “not material but behavioural” is not, however, peculiarly Thatcherite. The belief that the responsibility for poverty lies with the poor and deprived themselves, and that poverty and inequality are moral rather than political issues, has deep historical roots and continues to shape public policy to this day.

From the Victorian notion of the “undeserving poor”, to the 1960s “culture of poverty” thesis, to New Labour’s crusade against “problem families”, to Iain Duncan Smith imposing a benefit cap on parents with more than two children to teach the poor that “children cost money”, as if they did not know already, there is a long history of blaming, indeed punishing, the poor for their misfortunes.

In the last few years, as the Tories have sought to present themselves as friends of working-class aspiration, the more naked class-baiting has often been pushed into the background. But the explosion of strikes over the past year and the crumbling of support for the Conservative government have helped resurrect many old themes.

There seems to be two Britains now on show, the nation that most of us inhabit and the one that inhabits Tory imaginations. There is a Britain in which last year the income for the poorest fifth of the population fell by 3.8% while that of the richest fifth rose by 1.6%. In which a former chancellor of the exchequer “carelessly” failed to pay more in tax than most nurses earn in a lifetime. In which people die of hypothermia because they cannot afford to turn on the heating.

And then there is a Britain in which, according to the Daily Mail, drawing on a report on “state dependency” by the conservative thinktank Civitas, more than half the population gets “something for nothing”. In which income tax is apparently a “stealth tax” forcing the fabulously rich to pay more. In which Lee Anderson, Tory MP for Ashfield, lectures nurses on how to budget within their salary.

One might wonder whether the Daily Mail understood that the reason the top 10% pay half of all income tax is because they own half of all wealth. One might wonder, too, whether an MP from a party whose former leader needed to call on an £800,000 loan because he could not survive on a prime ministerial salary of £164,080 is best placed to lecture nurses earning £30,000 on why they should be grateful for what they get.

The greater individuation of society in the post-Thatcher years, and the erosion of class as an expression of collective consciousness, has nevertheless made it easier to present poverty as a product more of moral failure than of social problems, the consequence of individual action rather than of structural inequities.

If debates about poverty have become warped by a longstanding view that attributes blame to the individual, debates about inequality have become distorted by a more contemporary trend: the increasing tendency to look at equality in terms of “diversity”. “When you ask them for more equality, what they give you is more diversity,” observes the American academic Walter Benn Michaels. “But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity.”

Michaels’s observation comes in a new collection of essays that he and fellow academic and activist Adolph Reed, Jr, have written over the past 20 years challenging the shift from equality to diversity and the evacuation of class from the analysis of inequality. The new collection is provocatively entitled No Politics But Class Politics; Reed and Michaels do not deny the significance of racism or discrimination against women but they do insist on the centrality of class in any discussion of social inequalities.

The moral force of the demand for diversity comes from the fact that many groups – racial minorities, women, gay people and others – have historically faced discrimination and been excluded from positions of power and privilege. The drive for greater diversity is seen as a push for greater equality and an attempt to dismantle barriers of exclusion.

Equality and diversity are not, however, synonymous. Even as societies and institutions have become more diverse, many have also become more unequal. What has been created, Reed sardonically observes, is a “moral economy” in which “a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be [regarded as] just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people”.

Diversity policies, in other words, do not necessarily challenge inequality, but simply make it “fairer”. Most of those who advocate diversity policies do so because they abhor inequality. Yet, in the shift from “equality” to “diversity”, the most marginalised have often been forgotten. The focus shifted from addressing the needs of working-class people from minority communities to providing better opportunities for middle-class professionals. “The fact that some people of colour are rich and powerful,” Michaels observes, should not be “regarded as a victory for all the people of colour who aren’t”.

There are few issues today not shaped by class divides. The trouble is, whether moralising poverty or mistranslating equality as diversity, the ways in which we discuss the impact of class on people’s lives too often helps only to obscure that reality.

%d bloggers like this: