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Home > Resources > UK: The new fight for fairness – Liz Truss’ speech at the Centre for Policy Stud

UK: The new fight for fairness – Liz Truss’ speech at the Centre for Policy Studies


Thursday 24 December 2020, by siawi3



Kenan Malik


Illustration: Theodore Major, “Man in a Storm”

This essay, on inequality, “conservative values” and the “postmodern left”, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 20 December 2020, under the headline “The Tory ‘class agenda’ is a culture war stunt that will leave inequality untouched”.

‘Woke orthodoxy abolished”; “a landmark speech”; “a counter-revolution”. One couldn’t miss the fawning from certain sections of the media. Whoever is responsible for equalities minister Liz Truss’s spin definitely deserves their Christmas bonus.

Truss, who doubles up as the international trade secretary, gave a speech on Thursday to the Centre for Policy Studies that promised to “reject the approach taken by the left, captured as they are by identity politics and loud lobby groups”, to dump fashionable “postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault” and, instead, to “root the equality debate in the real concerns people face”.

Take away the culture-war rhetoric and the anti-woke bombast, however, and there was little that moved beyond the bland. “It is not right,” she said, “that having a particular surname or accent can sometimes make it harder to get a job.” It is “appalling that pregnant women suffer discrimination at work” and that they have to “dress in a certain way to get ahead”. That “employers overlook the capabilities of people with disabilities”. And “outrageous… that LGBT people still face harassment”. No mainstream politician of the past 25 years would have disagreed. Though, if someone on the left had said all that, they would probably have been denounced for pursuing “woke orthodoxy” by the same voices now lauding Truss’s counter-revolution.

Truss dressed it all up as a demonstration of “conservative values”. What it actually revealed was the degree to which liberal orthodoxies have become accepted in Britain, including by conservatives.

The equalities minister’s media admirers hailed the speech as the dumping of the politics of identity and the restoration of class to the inequality discussion. Except that she only mentioned class once and then to talk of the “white working class”. It was less a critique of identity politics than the pursuit of an identity politics of a different kind.

Beyond the left-baiting applause lines, there was little of substance. Truss promised to end “unconscious bias” training and to look into “more flexible working”. But there was nothing about the policies that would bring about her more egalitarian world. Nor any explanation of how her anti-inequality agenda squares with the actual policies of this government. With the refusal to raise statutory sick pay to a half decent amount in the midst of a pandemic, while condemning workers not taking time off when ill. With the unwillingness to make permanent the universal credit Covid uplift of Ł20, meaning millions of Britain’s poorest families could lose Ł1,000 a year next spring. With the reluctance to extend free school meals into holidays until forced to do so, twice, by Marcus Rashford. With the entrenched cronyism that mocks Truss’s claim that “fairness, not favouritism, drives our approach”. With the views of the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who seemed more angry about Unicef pulling a “political stunt” by feeding hungry children in Britain than by those children being hungry in the first place.

According to the Trussell Trust, one UK household in 50 uses a food bank, of which there are more than 2,000 across Britain. The number of three-day emergency parcels the charity delivers has soared from 35,000 in 2009/10 to almost 2m in 2019/20. Given Truss’s concern for the “white working class”, it’s worth noting that 93% of those receiving food parcels are white.

According to Rees-Mogg, this is not a scandal but an occasion for self-congratulation. “The state can’t do everything, so I think that there is good within food banks,” he told a caller on LBC three years ago. The “real reason” for the rise in the numbers using food banks is that, thanks to the Tories, “people know that they are there”, whereas “Labour deliberately didn’t tell them”. These are the “conservative values” that have helped entrench inequality.

On the day Truss gave her speech, the Spectator published an interview with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. “If we think borrowing is the answer to everything, that debt rising is fine, then there’s not much difference between us and the Labour party. I worry about what that means for us politically down the line,” he told the magazine. Making debt reduction the political issue that distinguishes the Tory party is a promise of public expenditure cuts, the same approach that led to the disastrous and unnecessary policy of austerity that was pursued after 2010. It’s not a policy that any government serious about tackling inequality would countenance.

Historically, Britain became steadily less unequal in the early decades of the postwar period. Inequality shot up, however, in the 1980s, when, pursuing “conservative values”, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the demise of large swaths of manufacturing industry, the destruction of working-class communities and the muzzling of trade unions. Since then, levels of inequality have changed little, though in the years after 2010 the percentage of children and of private renters in relative poverty has sharply increased.

It is not the rise of the postmodern left but the demise of working-class organisation that has so entrenched inequality. Indeed, the Thatcherite attacks on the labour movement went hand in hand with attacks on minorities, from moral panics about black muggers to the section 28 assault on gays and lesbians.It is true that sections of the left have moved away from addressing working-class problems and that the working class figures too little in many debates about inequality. We should not, however, confuse ideological shifts on the left, troubling though they may be, with the material reasons for inequality and poverty.

Truss’s speech was less a serious rethink about how to tackle inequalities than a fusillade in the culture wars masquerading as a grand policy statement, a risible attempt to make the “equalities agenda” an alibi for failures to challenge social injustices. There is something cynical about pitting the needs of minorities against those of the working class, when neither have been properly addressed.

I have long been critical of the politics of identity, sceptical of the “diversity” approach and many forms of contemporary anti-racism and questioned the failure to take seriously the inequities of class. I have even critiqued Foucault (though only after having actually read him).I am equally critical, though, of a faux-egalitarian agenda that leaves inequality untouched but seeks to play to the culture wars gallery. Be prepared: we will undoubtedly hear many more such speeches as the Tories ready the ground to claim the issue as theirs even as they push through policies that exacerbate inequalities



by Paul Embery

Friday, 18 December 2020

Two cheers for Liz Truss

Liz Truss argued that the agenda for equality is driven too much by identity politics

I doubt that the Equalities minister, Liz Truss, and I would agree on much if we were ever to meet, but credit where it’s due: her speech yesterday challenging some of the sacred precepts of liberalism and taking a well-aimed swipe at its most militant proselytisers was, in this day and age, almost revolutionary.

Truss argued that, while there is a moral and practical case for equality, the agenda is driven too much by identity politics and not enough by factors such as socio-economic status or geographical disparities. The focus on identity, she argued, has meant that those with ‘protected characteristics’ are often looked upon as members of homogenous groups rather than as individuals, while the inattention to social, economic and geographical inequalities means that the challenges facing some of our most disadvantaged fellow citizens are ignored.

Truss was right. In dividing people into discrete groups on the basis of race, religion or sexuality, and emphasising their separateness from everyone else — almost as if their individual characteristics were virtuous in themselves and worthy of special treatment — the whole creed of identity politics is intensely divisive.

Where Truss was wrong was in claiming that all this stuff is exclusively the fault of the Left. It is certainly true that the Left has been the main driver of the descent into identity politics, but Truss would do well to accept that the Tories themselves have their own thriving liberal-progressive wing which has all too enthusiastically embraced it. And let’s not forget who has been running the country for the past decade, during which the whole phenomenon has become so pervasive.

Truss’s message will, though, resonate in the very communities she highlighted in her speech — the ones suffering from an acute lack of money and opportunity but whose tribulations seem to be secondary in the minds of those who are constantly looking for victims elsewhere. These are the type of places the Tories snatched from Labour in great number at the last election. The people who inhabit them have little time for identity politics, and are sick of woke culture in general and the moral hectoring that comes with it. They would prefer their political representatives to focus on the bread-and-butter issues that stress them in their everyday lives: jobs, wages, housing, crime, and so on.

That’s why a Labour party that was as determined as it claims to win back the hearts and minds of voters in these communities would avoid attacking Truss’s comments. It might even be really bold and openly welcome them. But mired as the party is in the very ideology that was Truss’s target, it’s impossible to imagine such a thing. And while that remains the case, these places will continue to see the equalities minister and her party as more cognisant of their grievances and thereby more worthy of their support.



17 December 2020

The new fight for fairness – Liz Truss’ speech at the Centre for Policy Studies

By Liz Truss

Photo: Centre for Policy Studies

We cannot waste time on misguided, wrong-headed and ultimately destructive ideas
The focus on groups at the expense of individuals has led to harmful unintended consequences
Too often, people from certain backgrounds are let down by the soft bigotry of low expectations

No matter your skin colour, sexuality, religion or anything else, the United Kingdom is one of the best places in the world to live.

The British story has been driven from its earliest days by the desire for liberty, agency, and fairness.

It is the notion that in Britain you will have the opportunity to succeed at whatever you wish to do professionally, that you can be whoever you want to be, dress however you want to dress, love whoever you wish to love and achieve your dreams.

But we must be honest. Our story is not yet complete. Our equality journey is not yet finished.

For too many people, particularly in places beyond the South East, opportunity is diminished.

For years, successive governments have either pretended that all opportunity was equal or failed to come up with proper solutions, paying lip service to a problem that has festered for decades.

It was this government that finally tore down this social taboo when we were elected to level up the country and toppled the Red Wall, turning it Blue.

We were elected partly on the promise of fixing the scourge of geographic inequality, and ensuring equal opportunity for all. There are still too many cases where your destination in life is decided by where you started it.

So today, I am outlining a new approach to equality in this country. This will be founded firmly on Conservative values.

It will be about individual dignity and humanity not quotas and targets, or equality of outcome.

It will reject the approach taken by the Left, captured as they are by identity politics, loud lobby groups and the idea of ‘lived experience’.

It will focus fiercely on fixing geographic inequality addressing the real problems people face in their everyday lives, using evidence and data.

If you were born in Clacton or Darlington, you have been under-served by successive governments. No more.

Things must change – and things will change.

This new approach to equality will run through the DNA of this government.

The moral and practical case for equality

For me, it is a moral and practical mission.

Just as our forebears fought for change, we must fight for change again – challenging what is unfair and unjust today.

It is not right that having a particular surname or accent can sometimes make it harder to get a job.

It is appalling that pregnant women suffer discrimination at work. Or that women may be encouraged to dress in a certain way to get ahead.

Or that some employers overlook the capabilities of people with disabilities.

It is outrageous in the 21st century that LGBT people still face harassment in public spaces.

As well as being a moral problem, it is shameful we are squandering so much talent.

If women opened businesses at the same rate as men – we could add Ł250bn to the economy.

If people of every ethnic group were fully represented across the labour market, that would mean an extra Ł24 billion of income a year. If businesses were fully accessible for disabled consumers, they could benefit from an estimated Ł274 billion a year in spending power.

We can ill afford to waste this potential as we recover from Covid and build back better.

Equality rooted in Conservative values

Our new approach to equality will be based on the core principles of freedom, choice, opportunity, and individual humanity and dignity.

We will move well beyond the narrow focus of protected characteristics and deliver real change that benefits people across our United Kingdom.

We will do this in three ways.

First, by delivering fairness through modernisation, increased choice and openness.

Second, by concentrating on data and research, rather than on campaigning and listening to those with the loudest voices.

And third, by taking our biggest and broadest look yet at the challenges we face, including the all too neglected scourge of geographic inequality.

Now is the time to root the equality debate in the real concerns people face, like affording a home, getting to work, going out safely at night, ending discrimination in our offices, factories and shop floors and improving our schools so every child has a good chance in life.

It is our duty to deliver, because if right-thinking people do not lead the fight for fairness, then it will be led by those whose ideas don’t work.

The failed ideas of the Left

The ideas that have dominated the equality debate have been long in the making.

As a comprehensive school student in Leeds in the 1980s, I was struck by the lip service that was paid to equality by the City Council while children from disadvantaged backgrounds were let down.

While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.

These ideas have their roots in post-modernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.

In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view – truth and morality are all relative.

Rather than promote policies that would have been a game-changer for the disenfranchised, like better education and business opportunities, there was a preference for symbolic gestures.

Even now, authorities rush to embrace symbols – for example, Birmingham City Council promoting new streets named “Diversity Grove” and “Equality Road” – as if that counts as real change.

Underlying this is the soft bigotry of low expectations, where people from certain backgrounds are not expected to reach high standards.

This diminishes their individual humanity, dignity and agency. And it hasn’t delivered the progress it promised.

In 1997, there was a huge celebration of all-women shortlists delivering Blair’s babes.

But 23 years later, the Labour Party still hasn’t had a female leader. In the last leadership election, there were four women standing, but the man won. Again.

In addition, this focus on groups at the expense of individuals has led to harmful unintended consequences.

It has led to the Left turning a blind eye to practices that undermine equality, whether it be failing to defend single-sex spaces, hard fought for by generations of women, enabling and tolerating antisemitism, or the appalling grooming of young girls in towns like Rotherham.

Although time and time again, the Left’s ideas have been shown to fail, they still pervade our body politic.

Study after study has shown that unconscious bias training does not improve equality, and in fact can backfire by reinforcing stereotypes and exacerbating biases.

That’s why this week we announced we will no longer be using it in government or civil service.

Whether it’s “affirmative action”, forced training on “unconscious bias”, or lectures on “lived experience”, the Left are in thrall to ideas that undermine equality at every turn.

The absurdity was summed up just this week by the Mayor of Paris being fined for employing so many female managers she had breached a quota.

By contrast, the Conservative Party has elected two female leaders, and has a Cabinet with the highest ever level of ethnic minority representation.

We have done this not by positively discriminating, but by positively empowering people who want to go into politics and opening up our Party to people of all backgrounds.

Because when you choose on the basis of protected characteristics, you end up excluding other people.

1. Fairness, not favouritism

Fairness, not favouritism, drives our approach to equality.

Too often, the equality debate has been dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices, and by those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic and not by their individual character.

This school of thought says that if you are not from an ‘oppressed group’ then you are not entitled to an opinion and that this debate is not for you.

I wholeheartedly reject this approach.

Equality is something everybody in the United Kingdom should care about, and something all of us have a stake in.

So, I am calling time on “pink bus” feminism, where women are left to fix sexism and campaign for childcare.

Rather than virtue signalling, or campaigning this government is focused on delivering a fairer and more transparent society that works for all and that delivers genuine equality of opportunity.

The work of American academic Iris Bohnet shows that modernising and making organisations more transparent is the best way to tackle inequality.

When things are opaque, it benefits those who know how to game the system.

We know that when companies publish their wage ranges, it leads to more equal starting points for men and women.

We know that automatic promotions based on performance help level up opportunities for women in the workplace, overcoming the barriers that make women less likely to put themselves forward for promotion.

And we know that evidence-driven recruitment in a clear and open structure is more effective than using informal and ad hoc networks.

On the other hand, techniques like unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity statements do nothing to make the workplace fundamentally fairer.

By driving reforms that increase competition, boost transparency and improve choice, we can open up opportunities.

This is the approach we will be taking across government.

It is fundamentally important that the role of equality minister is held by someone who also has another cabinet job, as I do with trade.

This ensures equality is not siloed, but is instead the responsibility of the whole government and all our elected representatives.

For example, the Academies Act 2010 meant good free schools were established across England and more children had the opportunity of a great education, the 1980 Housing Act empowered over two million people to get on the housing ladder and the independent taxation of women in 1988 gave wives control of their own money.

All of these reforms promoted equality by giving people greater agency over their own lives and making systems more transparent.

For example, we know that students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to achieve better grades than they were predicted and they lose out in the current university admissions system which is based on predicted grades.

That is why Gavin Williamson is right to base the university admissions system on the actual grades students achieve, making sure that students from lower income backgrounds have a fairer shot at university.

In the workplace, we know that flexible working improves productivity and helps people to combine work with other responsibilities.

That is why I will be working with Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, to enable more flexible working – not just as a necessity amid the Covid crisis but to empower employees.

The best way to reduce unfairness in our society is through opening up opportunities for all.

This is the level playing field we should be talking about.

And we are going to make sure that this level playing field is properly enforced.

That is why I am appointing a new chair and a wide variety of commissioners to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to drive this agenda forward.

I am proud we have Baroness Kishwer Falkner, David Goodhart, Jessica Butcher, Su-Mei Thompson and Lord Ribeiro, all of whom are committed to equality and ready to challenge dangerous groupthink.

Under this new leadership, the EHRC will focus on enforcing fair treatment for all, rather than freelance campaigning.

2. Facts, not fiction

To make our society more equal, we need the equality debate to be led by facts, not by fashion.

Time and time again, we see politicians making their own evidence-free judgements.

The Labour party made the ridiculous claim that “our country has never been more unequal”, with even Channel 4 concluding it “does not stand up to scrutiny”.

My superb colleague Kemi Badenoch is leading work on the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, established by the Prime Minister.

We should heed the warning from its chair, Dr Tony Sewell, who wrote last month that they have uncovered “a perception of racism that is often not supported by evidence” and that “wrong perceptions sow mistrust”.

We can and must have an equality agenda that is driven by evidence.

Today I am announcing that the Equality Hub will embark on the Government’s biggest, broadest and most comprehensive equality data project yet and it will closely coordinate with the work of CRED.

Over the coming months, we will look across the UK to identify where people are held back and what the biggest barriers are.

We will not limit our fight for fairness to the nine protected characteristics laid out in the 2010 Equality Act, which include sex, race, and gender reassignment.

While it is true people in these groups suffer discrimination, the focus on protected characteristics has led to a narrowing of the equality debate that overlooks socio-economic status and geographic inequality.

This means some issues – particularly those facing white working-class children – are neglected.

This project will broaden the drive for equality and get to the heart of the barriers people face. It will report its initial findings in the summer.

In addition to race, sex, disability and religion, it will also look at issues around geography, community and socio-economic background.

It will deliver a new life-path analysis of equality from the perspective of the individual, not groups. Using longitudinal data sets will help us understand where the real problems lie.

3. Geographic Inequality

There is a deeper wage gap between London and the regions than between men and women, with an average full-time salary a third higher in the capital than the North East of England.

There are lower employment rates, pay packets and life expectancy across the North than the South.

That is why the equality agenda must be prosecuted with fierce determination and clarity of purpose up and down the country, not just in London boardrooms and Whitehall offices.

Whether that is making the case for free schools in deprived areas or using data to help regional businesses attract investment.

We will use the power of evidence to drive reform and give people access to the facts so they can push for change.

We will drive this action from the North of England, where we will be moving the Equality Hub.

And I am delighted to announce that we are also taking on sponsorship of the Social Mobility Commission, to give this agenda real teeth and coherence.

The whole of government will be – and is – totally committed to this agenda. The Treasury is revising its Green Book so that it judges infrastructure investment fairly across the UK, no longer seeing – for example – faster broadband as a better investment in Surrey than South Lanarkshire.

The Department for Education is going to extra lengths to create academies and free schools outside London. And in housing, we are working to increase opportunities for home ownership across the country.

This is just the start. There is much more we will be doing to make our country fairer and give people agency over their own lives.

This is not limited to the UK

This fight for fairness goes beyond our shores.

Next year, the United Kingdom will use its presidency of the G7 to ramp up its work worldwide with like-minded allies to champion freedom, human rights and the equality of opportunity.

The UK is co-leading the new global Generation Equality Action Coalition on Gender Based Violence, and co-chairing the Equal Rights Coalition.

In that role, we will be holding our International LGBT conference, on the theme of Safe To Be Me.

We are working internationally to bring an end to child marriage… and are supporting international programmes to end the abhorrent practice of Female Genital Mutilation.

We need to make progress across the world and at home, as a fairer world and a fairer Britain go hand in hand.

Taking the right approach to deliver real change

At this vital time in our country’s history, we must make sure everyone has a chance to succeed in modern Britain.

That is why we cannot waste time on misguided, wrong-headed and ultimately destructive ideas that take agency away from people.

Instead, we will drive an agenda that empowers people and actively challenges discrimination.

We will use evidence to inform policy and drive change.

And we will focus on increasing openness and transparency fixing the system rather than the results.

Together, we will build back a better society and lead the new fight for fairness.