Last Wednesday I attended the parliamentary launch of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class), a new think tank set-up by Unite the Union to act as a lightening rod for left-wing debate and discussion.
There was a packed turn-out in one of the Commons' beautiful Committee Rooms to see speeches by, among others, Independent columnist Owen Jones, TUC deputy general secretary Frances O'Grady, and Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of the brilliant The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.
The parliamentary launch centred around the release of Class's recent publication Why Inequality Matters (available to read online here), which draws heavily on the ideas of The Spirit Level. For those that haven't read it, the central thesis is simple: the larger a society's income inequality, the more devastating its social problems.
Whereas Peter Mandelson famously said that New Labour were "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" as long as they paid their taxes, The Spirit Level empirically shows that material inequality actually leads to higher rates of mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancies, and even murder, while severely limiting social mobility, trust and life expectancy.
Owen Jones rightly pointed out that a think tank can't single-handedly save the world, but the launch of Class is genuinely important as a means of helping the left present a coherent response to policy planners and journalists. As someone tweeted to me recently: "While the left thinks about things deeply, the right acts." And you know what? They're spot on. As right-wing economist Milton Friedman wrote in 1962:
Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. [my italics]And that's precisely what a think tank can do: float ideas in the pubic sphere ready for when they are needed.
Take, for example, the banking crash in 2008, a time when the "politically impossible" certainly did become "politically inevitable" - large swathes of the UK banking system were nationalised in order to prevent the entire global economy going belly-up, something that even those on Labour's far-left could hardly have dared dream of.
Unregulated free-market capitalism was shown to be profoundly knickerless, but the financial system has largely carried on as if the whole thing was an unfortunate blip thanks to the lack of a coherent left-wing response (I recommend reading Class's "think piece" on the effects of the crash, a brilliant summary of the idiocy of free market dogma: not only is it profoundly unjust, it's also economically unsound).
Faced with high unemployment, a rapidly vanishing welfare state and a shocking lack of social housing, Britain in 2012 is calling out for some fresh ideas. Let's hope Class can help deliver them.