Theresa May’s inequality audit seems clever, but it will backfire | Zoe Williams

The prime minister is trying to placate those who voted for Brexit, but will shy away from radical solutions. That will be an opportunity for her opponents

Don’t listen to the words: Theresa May has signalled her real Brexit intentions. She scoured the party for its three least consensual, most solipsistic, least assiduous, most attention-seeking members, and put them in charge of it. It will be a miracle if Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis can get on with one another, let alone any actual job. Brexit means Brexit – one day in the future, when everything else has happened first.

So May needed a way to address and placate what is now accepted to be the tremendous well of anger that the Brexiteers gave voice to, some way other than giving them what they voted for. She could have chosen immigration. If the conventional wisdom is now that the leave vote was a yelp of outrage, the attendant consensus is that foreigners were its source.

The prime minister went instead to the issue that is the functional, rhetorical and ideological opposite of immigration: inequality. She has ordered a government audit into racial disparities in public service outcomes. By 2017, a citizen armed only with his or her age, postcode and racial profile will be able to determine the likelihood of being unemployed, detained under the Mental Health Act, arrested or excluded from school.

The audit will be updated annually. There are reasons to be sceptical, principally the simultaneous announcement of huge cuts to NHS services, which makes a mockery of the language. It’s no good becoming more equal just because everybody’s access to healthcare has worsened. Yet the fact is, she has done something exceptional.

With bold, relentless and unscrupulous repetition, the combined forces of the leave movement established truisms that were never true: that immigrants milked the benefits system, filled up the insufficient housing and put unbearable pressure on public services. There was a time, before Ed Miliband’s famous mug, when Labour would have challenged these perceptions with evidence; now we see Owen Smith trotting out lines about an influx of refugees squeezing natives out of primary schools, in a country (Wales) that has accepted just 112 Syrians, and where most of its primary schools have surplus places. It is extraordinary to witness the new political compact with the Daily Mail: ask not what is accurate, but only how cleverly you can parrot it before you turn even your own stomach.

May has undermined that agenda altogether by simply refuting its primacy. She has eschewed the fiction of direct causation – that your low wages are the result of a cheaper foreigner – in favour of indirect causation: your wages are ratcheted down by your limited opportunities. She treats the new distrust of experts with the respect it deserves – precisely none – and sets about creating the data set from which expertise proceeds.

She has done more than reject the Crosbyfication of politics, which demands every debate be reduced to its basest question. She has chosen her own frame for the debate.

It is unlikely, of course, that she’ll be able to act on her findings. Having simultaneously kicked off this audit, and Brexit, with a data-heavy, sector-by-sector analysis of what every business wants and needs, she’ll wind up in 2017 with a roomful of beautiful data visualisations, all requiring contradictory actions.

Let’s say we intuit correctly that some elegant way will be found to avoid Brexit; possibly laying out its implications, slowly and clearly enough, will suffice. Inequality is different. As evidence of it builds and deepens over time, the old platitudinous equilibrium, where everyone is against it but nobody thinks they can do anything about it, will become harder to maintain.

Inequality is highly abstract and seems to have a momentum of its own, given that it constantly travels in the opposite direction to the one everybody claims to want. This gives it the inevitability of gravity or weather. The academic’s answer is to try tethering it back to something concrete and actionable, with demonstrable outcomes: a wealth disparity of X leads to a longevity difference of Y.

As vital as that is, it answers only half the question: how do we know that inequality is damaging? It doesn’t answer the more important riddle, the one that would wrest from inequality its status as a physical feature of the universe, and bring it back to level of human agency: by what mechanism does inequality do this damage? How can one child’s education be stunted by the existence of a richer child five streets away? How does one person’s bonus drive down another’s wages?

The answers lie not in regrettable prejudice but in balance of power: as profit is distributed more towards capital than labour, and the workforce becomes more precarious, its precariousness can be leveraged against it to drive down pay and conditions further, and the insecurity deepens. As capital concentrates and finds a haven in property, the balance of power shifts between landlords and tenants. Owning a house becomes impossible and rents get more expensive, creating a feedback loop where the power of the tenant in the workplace diminishes further, as saving becomes impossible.

It would be unthinkable for a Conservative of any pedigree to formulate solutions to this. Yet with her focus, May will make the problem steadily more urgent, while furnishing more radical minds than her own with the evidence they need to make ambitious demands. Far from appropriating inequality for her own rhetorical advantage, as George Osborne did with the “living wage”, May has actually opened it up as a field of play in which her own moves are obsolete and new thinking is not just possible but irresistible.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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