Let me state the obvious - the Labour Party is the Party of Equality. The Wilson years saw great social advances including decriminalisation of homosexuality, legislation to outlaw racial discrimination and the Equal Pay Act. Back in government in 1997, Labour again took up the challenge with the introduction of the minimum wage, civil partnerships, the Human Rights Act, equality of opportunity, the Equality Act.
I get very defensive over criticisms of Labour for harbouring unreconstructed equality refuseniks with socially conservative views. It's not that they don't have a good point but they glibly ignore the thousands of people in the Labour Party from leadership positions down to individual members who have fought for equality issues over the years. Labour is the party of equality. Even from within the party we are denied by some on the left the credit due for the achievements of past Labour Governments.
The Equality Act 2010 was a fantastic achievement. I remember the brilliant leadership of Harriet Harman and Vera Baird on this, and the stalwart work of the Labour members on the Bill’s committee as they steered it through the Commons, clause by clause line by line, in a race against time as the Labour Government came to an end. And what support did they have from the SNP for this radical progressive Bill? - their representative on the committee was a certain John Mason - a socially conservative homophobe who undermined and hindered progress at every opportunity, continually raising spurious irrelevant points.
I was responsible for coordinating equality policies at the local authority I worked for at the time public sector equality duties came into force. We particularly welcomed the socio economic duty which linked equality to tackling poverty and discrimination. Before we had even finished the process however, the new Home Secretary and Equalities Minister in the incoming Coalition Government, Theresa May, had dropped the requirement to show the socio economic impact of policies.
She dismissed the Equality Act's socio economic duty as "socialism in one clause". Not even the measure's author, Harriet Harman, would have claimed so much for it. It was a moderate and sensible effort to provide a framework for equality backed up by a serious study demonstrating how imperfect it is to consider poverty only in terms of race, gender or geography. Its conclusion was that it is class that matters most. The merit of the socio economic duty was that it left it up to councils, schools and the NHS to decide how best to tackle poverty in their area. All the clause required was that every new policy had to be considered through the filter of its impact on poverty. It was actually a small acknowledgment by the last Labour government that, despite its efforts, it had failed to make real, lasting progress against inequality itself. Along with many other Labour Councils we continued linking equality strategies and outputs to anti poverty measures anyway but what was lost was the opportunity to oblige all public sector bodies to make the connections.
The Scottish Labour Party continues to be in the vanguard of driving forward the equalities agenda. There is a very good chapter in the Scottish Fabians publication, A Pragmatic Vision for a Progressive Scotland - Gender Equality and 20/20 Vision by Sandra Osborne, then MP for Ayr Carrick and Cumnock and Chair of the UK All Party Group on Equality. Much of that vision has been taken forward by the Scottish Labour Party in developing its current policy agenda and is also reflected in the ‘A More Equal Society’ section of the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto, ‘For the many not the few’. However, the battle is never over.
I very much welcome the recent shift to the left in the Scottish Labour Party both in terms of the leadership and policies, but I am dismayed by the tendency of some on the left to give less than priority to equality issues. They seem to see equality as the hobby of middle class liberals, subordinate to left wing class politics. The myth still persists that when true red blooded socialism is established things like sexism, racism, homophobia and prejudice will just melt away. We have seen this backlash in action when some dared to call for a woman Deputy Leader of the Scottish Labour Party or challenged the new Leader’s appointment of a homophobic anti abortion colleague to the shadow cabinet with responsibility for tackling poverty and inequality. The defence seemed to be that someone else covered ‘equalities’ and, in any case, she was a ‘good left wing socialist’. Being ‘a good left wing socialist’ means recognising that socialism and equality are always interdependent and are totally indivisible.