Policy Papers

How to talk about redistribution: a historical perspective

Ben Jackson |

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Executive Summary

  • Labour politicians today are seldom heard talking about the basic social democratic commitment to economic redistribution.
  • A look at how this was done by successful progressive politicians in the past may dispel some misconceptions about how their counterparts today might resuscitate a public language of social justice.
  • Political leaders such as David Lloyd George, Franklin Roosevelt and Clement Attlee did not ground their redistributive rhetoric on an appeal to class-based identities.
  • Instead they used a discourse of social patriotism that mobilised lower and middle-income voters in an electoral coalition against the vested interests of the super-rich.
  • They did not employ explicitly egalitarian language to make the case for redistribution, but rather drew upon and radicalised familiar values such as opportunity, security and fairness.
  • Progressive politicians further emphasised the social dimension of wealth creation and the need for strong collective action to protect individual citizens from the vicissitudes of the market.


Ministers in the current Labour government have famously found it difficult to talk about economic redistribution. Indeed, one of the distinctive features of New Labour in office has been its pursuit of 'redistribution by stealth'. Unlike its Conservative predecessor, the Blair-Brown administration has deliberately used fiscal redistribution and labour market regulation to engineer significant improvements in the incomes of the working poor. Unlike earlier Labour governments, however, these redistributive efforts have been left largely unpublicised and have not been placed at the heart of Labour's electoral appeals. The tangible results of these initiatives have been welcome: poverty rates have been reduced from their extraordinary peak in the late 1980s and early 90s. However, although progress has been made, Labour's credibly social democratic achievements have ultimately still left untouched the deep economic inequalities created during the 1980s. The latest figures show that income inequality in Britain is currently at its highest level since comparable records began in 1961 - higher than during Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister - and that around 18 per cent of the population (and about 22 per cent of children) currently live below the poverty line. On present trends, the government will miss its target of halving child poverty by 2010. Since Labour's redistributive policies were introduced furtively, the government has not locked into British social policy and political culture an enduring commitment to social justice. Social policy experts and political commentators alike have consequently pointed out that, if Labour genuinely wants to tackle poverty and to shift British society in an egalitarian direction, then it will be necessary for the government to pursue more openly redistributive policies and hence to speak directly to the electorate about the justification for these initiatives.

Yet Labour has so far struggled to find the right language to communicate its redistributive commitments. The government's agenda for a fairer Britain proved to be less than robust when confronted in 2007 with a concerted Conservative counter-attack over inheritance tax. Labour politicians simply lacked persuasive arguments in favour of taxing inherited wealth at this crucial juncture. Maladroit, half-hearted efforts at donning an anti-elitist mantle, exemplified above all by the Crewe and Nantwich by-election campaign in May 2008, have confirmed that the current generation of Labour politicians is ill-equipped to win the public debate on poverty and inequality. A deeper worry is that, hovering in the background of the debate on inheritance tax here and elsewhere in the world (notably the USA), lurks a broader right-wing agenda aimed at abolishing the progressive taxation of income and wealth altogether and replacing it with a flat tax. Although at present this seems a distant prospect in Britain, if recent political history teaches us anything it is that the extreme libertarian think-tank pamphlet of today can very quickly become the government policy of tomorrow.

The formulation of an attractive public discourse about economic redistribution is therefore a matter of urgency. On it rests the defence of the hard-won achievements of the past and the mobilisation of popular support for fresh policies aimed at reducing poverty and economic inequality. But how is such a discourse to be constructed? In answering this question, one instructive source of information is historical. After all, at certain times in the past radical politicians have articulated and won arguments about economic redistribution. In this paper I examine how this was done. I argue that contemporary perceptions of this genre of political rhetoric are inaccurate: present-day modernisers, who have laboured to renew the popular appeal of Labour, see 'old' social democratic language as unnecessarily alarmist to middle-income voters and premised on an anachronistic appeal to an ever-diminishing working class. The evidence assembled here suggests that the historical premises of these claims are mistaken, which in turn raises the possibility that earlier styles of progressive rhetoric might yet be renovated for use in contemporary political arguments.

In what follows I examine the rhetoric used in the course of the historic struggles to entrench progressive taxation, welfare programmes, the regulation of the labour market, and other policy measures intended to lighten the burdens of the poor by increasing burdens on the better-off. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to these measures collectively as 'redistribution'. I will draw on evidence from three seminal episodes of progressive policy-making and electioneering: first, the rhetoric used to justify the Liberal Party's welfare reforms and fiscal policy in the first decade of the twentieth century, in particular the speeches of David Lloyd George; second, the political discourse of the New Deal in the United States in the 1930s, especially speeches and broadcasts by Franklin Roosevelt; and, finally, proposals in Britain during and after the Second World War about the character of post-war reconstruction, as advocated by prominent politicians in the Labour Party such as Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, and also by other influential figures such as William Beveridge. In spite of the differences between these episodes of social reform, their rhetorical justification nonetheless exhibited three illuminating similarities.

'The classes against the nation'

My first observation about the redistributive rhetoric used by progressives in the past is that it was above all a language of economic populism and patriotism, crafted to mobilise low- and middle-income citizens in a political coalition against the economic interests of the rich. The economic programmes of progressive parties were therefore presented as advancing the interests of the average citizen and the nation against the selfish desires of a super-rich minority.

The mobilisation of support for a measure often depends upon the identification of an enemy and consequently the starting point for this line of argument was a direct attack on the vested interests of those who opposed redistribution. This attack was not, in the style of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, an assault on the personal social background of named individuals, but rather a broader critique of the sectarian economic behaviour of the wealthy as an interest group. Progressive politicians argued that the economic and political behaviour of the rich could be 'selfish', since many of them were either directly responsible for the exploitative pay and conditions suffered by the labour force or indirectly responsible by opposing remedial political action. The pursuit of self-interest, far from being the praise-worthy quality depicted by the Right, was presented as sectional behaviour that detracted from the common good. During the 1945 general election campaign, for example, Clement Attlee brusquely rejected the 'pathetic faith' of the Conservatives that 'if every individual seeks his own interest somehow or other the interests of all will be served' and objected to the use of libertarian rhetoric to justify Conservative policy. 'There was a time', Attlee noted, 'when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day', in effect there was 'freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor', and it was only through the action of the state 'that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property-owners.' To ruthlessness and greed was added subversion of the democratic process. In his scintillating acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1936, Roosevelt drew on the struggle for American independence to establish a parallel between the British royalists who had tried to deny American democracy and the 'economic royalists' who now threatened economic and political life. The wealthy, 'the privileged princes', were 'thirsting for power' and trying 'for control over government itself.' This 'small group' had 'an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labour - other people's lives.' In short, the United States faced 'economic tyranny' from 'the forces of selfishness and of lust for power'.

The political sponsors of redistribution therefore employed a discourse of the public interest, the common good and even patriotism, but they defined these ideas - 'the public', 'the nation' - in populist terms, as synonymous with the material needs of, as Roosevelt put it, 'the average man'. In Britain, this style of rhetoric can be seen as a development from Gladstone's famous drawing of the electoral battle-lines in the late-nineteenth century as 'the classes against the masses' or 'the classes against the nation'. Gladstone had contrasted the sectional interests of privileged elites with the classless outlook of the nation as a whole largely in the context of non-economic issues such as parliamentary reform or the disestablishment of the Irish church. Later liberals and socialists in Britain took up this theme and contrasted the sectional, class-based economic behaviour of the rich with a classless national interest that was based upon the material needs of the ordinary citizen.

In order to make this populist definition of the public interest more persuasive, advocates of redistribution stressed that their proposals expressed the traditions and values of their national communities; that, among other things, redistribution exemplified the fairness and solidarity inherent in the national character. Beveridge argued that the introduction of a national minimum was 'a peculiarly British idea', and he added that his report on social insurance should not be seen as his own work but as an expression of the British people's deepest convictions: the Beveridge Report was 'the British people become articulate'. Similarly, Roosevelt's attack on 'economic royalists' embedded economic redistribution within the broader narrative of the history of the United States. He drew on a perennial republican theme, deeply entrenched in American political culture: the danger posed to the common good of the republic by the accumulation of power and influence in the hands of a self-centred minority. Opponents of the New Deal were now depicted as un-American, a point Roosevelt later made more explicit when he linked the American Revolution, a struggle for 'democracy in taxation', with the introduction of a more progressive income tax structure during the New Deal. Taxation according to ability to pay, argued Roosevelt, was 'the American principle', and the New Deal had 'Americanised the tax structure' by introducing greater progressiveness. As a result, Roosevelt argued that his administration had created 'a safer, happier, more American America', offering 'fidelity' to the true meaning of 'Americanism'.

The widespread use of this discourse of social patriotism challenges certain casual assumptions about traditional progressive rhetoric. By invoking the nation, progressive politicians spoke about a shared identity that transcended class loyalties and contrasted an inclusive community with the exclusive privilege enjoyed by a minority. The speeches of Lloyd George, Roosevelt and others did not disparage the ambitions of working families who sought to improve themselves. On the contrary, they spoke in terms designed to construct a political coalition between low and middle-income voters. Once the welfare state was put into operation, argued Herbert Morrison in 1947, 'the middle classes as well as the working classes will have reason to bless these services.' As Morrison added, this illustrated that the Labour Party 'stands up for all the useful people'. Redistribution was not presented by these politicians as advancing only the interests of 'the working class' or 'the poor' but as a majoritarian project that improved the economic position of the average citizen and was opposed only by selfish interest groups pursuing a narrow sectarian agenda.

Opportunity, security and fairness

The second point to notice about this redistributive rhetoric is that the political content of its social patriotism was determined by aligning the national identity with certain widely shared, but implicitly social democratic, values. Here again the emphasis of these politicians differs from the stereotype of a crude tub-thumping radical egalitarianism. In the first place, there were few explicit references to material equality as a substantive goal. For example, when Roosevelt mentioned economic redistribution he would typically talk about sharing wealth 'more widely', or even more democratically, rather than more equally, and would often refer to 'concentrated' wealth rather than wealth inequality. Some of the politicians discussed here were simply not that comfortable with explicitly egalitarian language; others were, but probably judged that egalitarian language would be politically ineffective, since it was too controversial and offered an easy target for political opponents.

Second, progressive politicians pressed into service a cluster of values judged to be more effective than the seemingly polarising goal of 'economic equality'. Many examples could be given here, but three stand out as particularly important: opportunity, security, and fairness. This language is of course not very different from that employed by contemporary Labour politicians. However, the words themselves are obviously open to diverse interpretations and the way in which they were used by politicians such as Roosevelt differed from their use by present-day 'Third Wayists'.

First, classic examples of redistributive public policy were presented as offering 'opportunity' to sections of the community previously denied it. The sheer elasticity and ambiguity of the concept of 'opportunity' is after all an asset in political argument, since its apparently uncontentious, positive connotations command a broad public appeal. The provision of material resources and social services to all, either through social insurance, full employment policies or a more progressive tax structure, was in itself said to offer 'opportunity'. As Beveridge observed, since 'one cannot teach hungry children, or children who return each night to squalid homes', material resources were necessary for individuals to make the most of their lives. Crucially, this desire to spread opportunity was not understood as purely a matter of fostering social mobility for a talented few. The older image of a ladder out of poverty for some was not what progressive politicians had in mind. The new American ideal, announced Roosevelt, was not 'the dream of the golden ladder - each individual for himself', but rather of 'advancement ... along a broad highway on which thousands of your fellow men and women are advancing with you'. Stress was laid on collective rather than individual mobility, and material resources were presented as essential to advancing the uplift of all.

Second, security was an authoritative word in the redistributive lexicon. Politicians often focused their rhetorical appeal on the concrete vulnerability of individuals and families to economic risk: the possibility of poverty and of hardship as much as actual poverty and hardship was a dominant theme in pro-welfare state rhetoric. Lloyd George succinctly expressed the problem: 'Precariousness of work leads to the servitude of the worker. Certainty of work means freedom.' The appeal of redistribution was that it would alleviate the distress caused by uncertainty about one's economic fate. 'Worry and anxiety are as inimical to health and happiness as the actual physical conditions of poverty', argued Attlee. Social insurance, added Roosevelt, would make families free from fear, enabling them to feel 'confidence' about their future. The very introduction of the terms 'social security' and 'social insurance' into popular discourse in itself helped to drive this point home, conjuring up the need for collective precautions against the risks inherent in market economies.

The discursive salience of 'security' was related to the economic hardships that shaped voters' social experience: the depression of the 1930s, for example, was obviously the central reference point throughout New Deal rhetoric and in British political debates during and after the Second World War. But it would clearly be odd to conclude that the rhetorical force of 'security' was relevant only to this period. Although the depression was certainly a particularly stark instance, it surely only illustrates a more general pattern of instability in the operation of market economies. As economic turbulence returns to the political agenda in our own time, the importance of 'security' is that it presents politicians with a suggestive, inspiring value that can bind together the distributive anxieties of both working and middle class voters. Indeed, there are also potentially interesting rhetorical connections to be made between economic and international security, a link previously made by Roosevelt during the Second World War.

Connected to these twin objectives of opportunity and security for all was the third ideal of fairness. Fairness or social justice was regularly employed as a justification for spreading opportunity and security and as a more general demand for 'fair shares' for all. Fairness was therefore used by politicians to address both the distribution of resources according to need and the allocation of burdens in proportion to the individual's capacity to contribute. In the former sense, fairness indicated an order of distributive priority. As Roosevelt suggested, 'the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life, is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power.' Politicians argued that it was unjust to expect families to cope with hardship when resources were available to assist them; it was only fair for the state to ensure that everyone enjoyed a decent income. The demand for a national minimum was therefore stressed at the expense of more specifically egalitarian objectives. The cry for fair shares also called for the imaginative sympathy of more fortunate listeners, asking them to picture themselves placed in the straitened conditions of the poor and needy, and to recognise the role of luck in determining their place in the class structure. Fairness therefore required a greater contribution from those who were well-off. One objective of his famous tax-raising 1909 'People's Budget', argued Lloyd George, was to place 'burdens on the broadest shoulders' and to ensure 'that wealth shall pay its fair share'. As he elaborated: 'There are many in the country blessed by providence with great wealth, and if there are amongst them men who grudge out of their riches a fair contribution towards the less fortunate of their fellow-countrymen they are very shabby rich men.'

'We can do it'

My third observation concerns the deeper assumptions about political agency that this redistributive rhetoric sought to disseminate to a wider public. Progressive politicians communicated an important message about the limits of individuals' responsibility for their economic fates, both in a backward-looking and a forward-looking sense. In a backward-looking sense, as the emphasis on security also implied, economic hardship and unemployment were depicted as the consequences of social processes, of unpredictable market fluctuations that simply were not susceptible to individual control. This led to vivid oratory that linked this insight to the economic populism and the view of social fairness discussed earlier. Lloyd George conjured up the case of 'a good workman' made unemployed:

Whose fault is it? Perhaps some greedy financiers, it may be in another country altogether, who, in their eagerness to get very rich, overstep the bounds of prudent speculation. There is a crash. A panic follows. The trade routes are blocked with the debris, and hundred of thousands, nay, millions of workmen in many lands are forced to remain idle until the roads are cleared and traffic is resumed ... Is it just, is it fair, is it humane to let them suffer privation?

Similarly, it was argued that great individual wealth was the result of the co-operation of many individuals and social institutions, and not simply the heroic entrepreneurship of a Henry Ford or a William Morris. As Roosevelt put it: 'Without mass co-operation great accumulation of wealth would be impossible save by unhealthy speculation.'

Just as there were limits to individual responsibility in this backward-looking sense, there were also limits in a forward-looking sense: individuals could not solve these problems on their own. This highlighted the need for collective action to overcome the unfairness produced by market activity. As Beveridge argued: 'Poverty is a crime, and the only question is, who is the criminal? Not, I suggest, the poor man, but the society which permits needless poverty.' These political leaders conveyed confidence about the capacity of collective action to solve social problems. The 'socialist principle', argued Herbert Morrison, was 'to do things collectively for the individual citizens ... which individuals could not well do for themselves.' For example: 'The citizen cannot adequately protect himself and his family by his own unaided effort. He must combine. Alone he risks collapse; but he can, by co-operating and by creating a fund, protect his family and his dependants from poverty and want.' Such rhetoric sought to redraw the accepted boundary between individual and collective responsibility, and to persuade voters that collective action through the state was a plausible and efficient means of addressing social harms.

Why is this emphasis on collective agency significant? Communicating to the electorate the conviction that 'we can do it' is obviously critical when mobilising public support for ambitious measures of social reform. Conquering scepticism about the efficacy of political action must therefore be a key priority in any successful progressive rhetoric, and it is salutary to remember that radical politicians of the past had to face and conquer deep-seated doubts about state capacity. But notice also that present-day progressive rhetoric is dominated by precisely the opposite conviction: it emphasises the constraints on government action; the nation-state's inability to control economic forces; and the failure of the state-led model of social reform. Today's progressive politicians generally express fatalism about the prospects for collective action and doubt about the state's role as an agent of the common good.


This paper has tried to dislodge some entrenched political prejudices about the rhetoric used in the past to mobilise support for economic redistribution. Far from preaching a leftist fundamentalism explicitly targeted at the working class, leading radical politicians in fact employed a more moderate discourse of the public interest that appealed to national rather than class identity. They mobilised popular support by contrasting the vested interests of the wealthy with the public good, portraying the latter as synonymous with the needs of the average citizen. The political content of this social patriotism was given greater precision by the appropriation of prestigious values. A fair and democratic society, it was argued, should ensure security and opportunity for all; adequately reward the contribution made by the low-paid; and restrict the economic and political power wielded by the wealthiest. More general points about collective responsibility for economic hardship and the power of the democratic state were also articulated to inspire confidence in the efficacy of redistributive solutions. The evidence I have assembled should dispel some misconceptions about how politicians talked about redistribution in the past and may even offer inspiration for any politician bold enough to begin the much-needed debate about economic justice in contemporary Britain.


Quotations are from the following sources:

C. R. Attlee, Purpose and Policy: Selected Speeches (London, 1946), pp. 7, 9, 98.

W. Beveridge, The Pillars of Security and Other War-time Essays and Addresses (London, 1943), p. 143.

W. Beveridge, Security and Adventure (London, 1944), pp. 5-6, 8.

D. Lloyd George, Better Times: Speeches by D. Lloyd George (London, 1910), pp. 54, 145, 156, 161, 302.

H. Morrison, The Peaceful Revolution: Speeches by the Rt. Hon. Herbert Morrison (London, 1949), pp. 38-9, 142.

F. D. Roosevelt, The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (New York, 1938-50), Vol. 4: pp. 17, 271-2, 339, 471; Vol. 5: pp. 39, 162, 211, 232-3, 383, 460, 475, 521, 523-7, 562, 568-9.

Statistics cited are from M. Brewer, A. Muriel, D. Phillips and L. Sibieta, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2008 (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2008).

Further Reading

S. Berman, The Primacy of Politics (Cambridge, 2006).

M. Daunton, Trusting Leviathan (Cambridge, 2001) and Just Taxes (Cambridge, 2002).

G. Gerstle, Working Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City (Cambridge, 1989).

B. Jackson, 'The rhetoric of redistribution' in J. Callaghan, N. Fishman, B. Jackson and M. McIvor (eds), In Search of Social Democracy (Manchester, forthcoming, 2008).


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