What Nick Clegg doesn't know about equality

The most equal countries also have the highest social mobility.

Once more following in David Cameron's footsteps, Nick Clegg is delivering tonight's Hugo Young memorial lecture. A preview of his speech appears in today's Guardian, in which the Lib Dem leader suggests that increasing social mobility, not achieving income equality, should be the ultimate goal of progressives.

He writes:

Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality. Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation. That's when societies become closed, stratified and divided.

The problem with Clegg's argument is that the countries with the highest levels of social mobility are those with the lowest levels of inequality. As the graph below (from the excellent book The Spirit Level) shows, countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Canada, where income inequality is low, have far higher levels of social mobility than the United States and the UK, where income inequality is high. This is hardly surprising: greater inequalities of outcome make it easier for rich parents to pass on their advantages to their children. Clegg's suggestion that progressives must prioritise either social mobility or income inequality is empirically unsound.

Social mobility

The data on equality and social mobility also undermines his argument against the 50p tax rate. He attempts to characterise Ed Miliband as an "old progressive" due to his support for a permanent 50p rate. But it is no coincidence that the most equal countries in the world are also those with the highest rates of income tax. Japan, the most equal country in the world, has had a top rate of 50 per cent for many years, Sweden, the second most equal country in the world, has a top rate of 56.6 per cent. The correlation continues: Denmark has a top rate of 55.4 per cent, Norway a top rate of 47.8 per cent and Finland a top rate of 49.6 per cent.

Clegg's refusal to acknowledge all of the above reveals either his ignorance or his disingenuity. Until he accepts that the most socially mobile societies are also the most equal, no one should take his "progressive" claims seriously.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.