New Labour equality flagship on the rocks

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New Labour has had 13 years to tackle inequality but the underfunded and toothless equalities watchdog falls far short of what's needed.

Working people in Britain now largely take it for granted that it is wrong to be bullied or discriminated against for being a woman, black, disabled or gay and that there are legal powers and workplace policies which exist to challenge such discrimination. In the last quarter of the 20th century a smorgasbord of equality legislation was adopted in response to campaigning by the women's movement, anti-racists, and LGBT rights and disability rights activists.

Yet despite all the legislation, women in Britain are still paid an average of 17 percent less than men and less than one in 20 rapes are reported. Less than 6 percent of those bring a conviction. Raunch culture is rife. Homophobia and transphobia are widespread. Islamophobia has become commonplace, while racism continues to blight society. We've also seen fascist BNP candidates elected to the European parliament and the London Assembly.

So much remains to be done and any gains that have been made will be under threat of being rolled back under the pressure of economic crisis, the probable election of a Tory government next year, and a media almost universally baying for a programme of savage cuts in social spending.

New Labour came to office in 1997 promising "change". Most workers welcomed this if it was to mean change from the 18 years of Tory cuts and devastation. One of New Labour's big ideas was to bring all the existing equality legislation into a Single Equality Bill and create the unified Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). This would merge the Equal Opportunities Commission, Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and, later, the Disability Rights Commission, all of which had been created over recent decades.

This is not automatically a bad idea - unless you do what New Labour has done, which is to starve the new body of funds, refuse to take advice from trade unionists and put the unpopular, unelected New Labourite Trevor Phillips in charge. The result has been a tame and hobbled pussycat of an EHRC rather than the tiger many would like to have seen.

During this summer the EHRC has descended into deep crisis barely two years after its formation. Even before Phillips's controversial reappointment as EHRC supremo in mid-July the masts appeared to be cracking on this equality flagship. Harriet Harman ignored widespread concerns about Phillips's leadership even as commissioners' resignations plopped onto her doormat - five of the 16 commissioners had resigned in protest by late July.

Unions marginalised

Does any of this matter to workers? For people facing discriminatory redundancies, the potential for deep public spending cuts, unemployment and employer cost-cutting, it certainly does.

One key problem is a complete lack of any democratic control or input to the EHRC. Phillips is appointed by ministers while commissioners are selected by opaque processes. Submissions and advice to the EHRC from genuine mass organisations like unions are often marginalised.

The EHRC's £70 million annual budget is peanuts given the tasks it faces. Campaigners have been concerned from the beginning that it would not be adequately funded or have sufficiently sharp teeth to deal with employers and service providers.

Certainly Phillips's role at the CRE did not inspire confidence. His light-touch approach was regarded by many as too government-friendly and so light a touch it was perceived by employers as barely more than a friendly tickle. Disability rights campaigner Bert Massey, who resigned as a commissioner in July, complained that the EHRC is achieving less collectively than was achieved under the previous commissions.

Even more damaging, the political course that the EHRC is steering under Harman and Phillips could wreck it. Phillips has been politically close to Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. His claims that Britain is "sleepwalking to segregation" or that "multiculturalism is dead" have alienated many people already. Last year the EHRC suggested bizarrely, to almost universal condemnation, that improving women's maternity rights might damage their job prospects.

When Joel Edwards from the Evangelical Alliance was appointed a commissioner, LGBT rights organisations and the TUC objected furiously. Activists were shocked that someone from a homophobic religious body could be regarded as a fit candidate for an equality quango.

In July the National Audit Office refused to sign off the EHRC's accounts, citing unacceptable use of public money. This related to the payment of £325,000 in consultancy fees to senior staff from the former CRE who had already received redundancy packages. The total cost to the taxpayer was around £1 million. Ordinary workers, seething about rocketing unemployment, MPs' expenses and bankers' bonuses, will no doubt look on at these shenanigans with justified outrage.

The EHRC could play a role in fighting discrimination and promoting equality. One all too rare example of what could be achieved was the report by Jill Rutter and Maria Latorre published earlier this year that completely undermined racist lies about immigrants "jumping the housing queues". The nonsense peddled by the likes of the BNP was shown to be the reverse of the truth as researchers found no evidence of discrimination against "locals". They found instead that there was evidence of discrimination against migrant communities.

The Single Equality Bill currently passing through parliament adds some legal protection for other equality strands such as age, transgender, religion and belief. However, it may not make it onto the statute books before the next election. In fact a nightmare scenario is that even if the main legislation is passed there is a risk that, due to the pressure on parliamentary time, many specific duties already in existence may fall by the wayside, leaving even fewer powers than now.

The EHRC could have taken on the scandal of worsening class inequality and class privilege under Labour. But those aspects of the Single Equality Bill have already been kicked into the long grass. It could take on the issue of Islamophobia but, of course, it won't because it is a creature of the very government that has connived in stoking it through its enthusiastic embrace of the "war on terror". Unfortunately, Labour's behaviour shows that "equality" for it is selective and more to do with window-dressing than substance.

Phillips and his political masters are wedded instead to the notion of "fairness", a concept so vague that it means anything to anyone and undermines the potential to effectively tackle discrimination and promote equality. "Equality" is non-negotiable - "fairness" is a damp squib of an alternative.

Socialists, of course, have much to say about promoting equality, because capitalism inherently uses various forms of oppression to divide workers and weaken our collective resistance to our exploitation as workers.

The gains in equality legislation are a result of mass actions since the 1970s. They are part of the collective achievement of our struggles. It would be disastrous if one of the legacies of New Labour's 13 years in government, should it lose the election in 2010, was to put these gains in jeopardy. We can't rely on the politicians. Our response must be to intensify our campaigns.

The greatest periods of advance in the fight for equality and against oppression have been when working class struggle has risen to new heights: for example, the transformation of the rights of women and gays after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the emergence of the women's liberation movement, lesbian and gay liberation and the Black Power movement from the anti Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and the industrial struggles of the early 1970s.

Fighting for equality at work and in society is inseparable from the defence of jobs, pay and conditions and public services. So, in contrast to the current depressing state of the EHRC, the exciting recent signs of growing class confidence by some workers are extremely encouraging.

They are the sort of green shoots of recovery that every worker needs.