On Saturday 3rd December, The Equality Trust was delighted to welcome Ed Miliband MP and Green MEP Molly Scott Cato to our annual conference to discuss ‘Inequality & Sustainability: Prospects for Progress in the Age of Brexit’ with Professors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson.

Ed Miliband began by cautioning against stigmatising or misunderstanding those who voted for Brexit here in the UK, or for Trump in the US. He said calling these people duped or prejudiced is an abdication of society’s responsibility – it is ‘on all of us,’ he said, that we have created a society with a pervasive sense of insecurity. Instead, the two votes should be viewed as a rejection of a particular economic settlement where inequality is rife. Mr Miliband emphasised the importance of class and life chances alongside race and identity, because they all sit in a context of people feeling that society does not work for them.

Mr Miliband said we need to speak directly to lived experience and tell the truth about how all of us are poorer because of inequality; people do not vote on the basis of the Gini coefficient!

Solutions to date have not measured up to the scale of the problem, but they must include a real living wage, the right to security, and a change in the balance of power between unions and business. All of this should be underpinned by a decent social security system, while the idea of a universal basic income deserves to at least be part of the debate, he said. The coalitions we build need to go beyond the usual people, for example one in five workers is self-employed, and we must fight for their rights as workers too. National parties have to provide a narrative and solutions, but we need a street-by-street model of change, with a reformed electoral system and greater devolution.

In closing, Mr Miliband reminded us that populism does not have to be narrow-minded; it can be about a more equal, sustainable and open society. While there are plenty of reasons to be gloomy, there is a major reason to be optimistic: we are seeing the breakdown of the old order established in the 1970s, and the new order is yet to be born.

Molly Scott Cato began by praising the film I, Daniel Blake’s powerful impact on the pernicious debate on poverty, and called the rhetorical division between ‘shirkers’ and ‘strivers’ invidious. She called for us to look at intergenerational inequity, and how poverty affects people throughout their lives. For example, as children enter the labour market they see wages falling and housing costs rising, to the point that ‘young adult’ has become quite a flexible definition, with many locked in a renters’ market or living at home. Ms Scott Cato said that we could help tackle wealth inequality through a strengthened inheritance tax which is related to the wealth of the inheritor and which encourages people to spread their wealth.

We should not accept the argument that cutting corporation taxes results in higher revenue; it’s demonstrably untrue. To tackle tax avoidance, Ms Scott Cato highlighted the importance of country-by-country reporting so that businesses pay taxes where they make their money, and called for a minimum tax rate across the single market to prevent a further race to the bottom.

Turning specifically to environmental issues, Ms Scott Cato said Brexit has absorbed so much intellectual and political energy that there is nothing left to address climate change. She argued we should see our response to it as an economic opportunity; the new industrial revolution could be people’s ownership of energy sources, creating a whole new class of asset holders. We need to ask ourselves what types of jobs are created, and who benefits, from our current global trade system.

In closing, Ms Scott Cato said the present time offers both a challenge and an opportunity. The global economy is leaving many behind and causing environmental destruction, but progressive parties have much more in common than the things that divide them.  You can view Molly’s slides here, and her pre-event guest blog here.

Professor Kate Pickett said we need to move effectively from evidence to practice. Health inequalities have only got worse, so we need to build stories around those facts. The difficulty in a ‘post-truth’ world is not only that people are being lied to and experts are being rejected, but that elites can be selective and say ‘that’s not my truth, those aren’t my facts’. Professor Pickett reminded us of the huge gains in progressive movements over the past few decades, particularly LGBT and civil rights, feminism and the fact the US has had its first black President. She emphasised the need to work locally in grassroots movements, and to work internationally as well as nationally.  ‘This is our time,’ said Professor Pickett.

Professor Richard Wilkinson picked up on the post-truth point and said that the more lies people tell, the more important telling the truth becomes. He agreed that an inspiring vision of the future has been missing so far, and said this vision is vital because in the past people have committed themselves to change in the knowledge that we could build a better society for all. Professor Wilkinson contrasted the consumerism of today with the future possibility of a leisure society enabled by technology. We could move from status-driven competition, working long hours and taking on personal debts to acquire status goods, to a shorter working week with more time for family, friends and community. Alongside this, he said, should be far greater economic democracy, with not just a single worker on boards, but increasing numbers of employee-owned companies.

The Equality Trust would like to thank our speakers and all those who attended for making it such an engaging day.