Why Willetts is wrong on feminism and social mobility

The countries with the highest levels of social mobility are those with the highest levels of gender

David Willetts's claim that feminism is to blame for the decline in social mobility has caused no shortage of outrage this morning. His thesis is that middle-class women, who otherwise would have been housewives, have snapped up university places and well-paid jobs that could have gone to working-class men.

Tto my eyes, there's a basic empirical problem with his claim. All of the available data on the subject shows that the countries with the highest levels of social mobility are those with the highest levels of gender equality. The 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks countries according to how well they "divide resources and opportunities amongst male and female populations", puts Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden at the top, with Britain lagging behind in 15th place (a fact which suggests, pace Willetts, that the "feminist revolution" has some way to go).

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If we turn our attention to social mobility, a similar pattern emerges. As the graph below from the excellent book The Spirit Level shows, the most socially mobile countries are those feminist utopias, Norway, Finland and Sweden (Iceland wasn't included in this study). What you'll also notice is that the chart shows there is a positive correlation between income equality and social mobility. This is hardly surprising: greater inequalities of outcome make it easier for rich parents to pass on their advantages to their children.

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Thus, Willetts's claim that "feminism trumped egalitarianism" is decidedly shaky. The high standing of Scandinavian women hasn't come at the expense of equality in those societies. In the case of Britain, it would be more accurate to say that Thatcherism trumped egalitarianism. The fact that child poverty tripled under Thatcher (from one in nine children to one in three) did more to depress social mobility than any other policy.

But Willetts, having failed to learn from the mistakes of the last Conservative government, is condemned to repeat them. As the IFS has warned, the government's austerity measures will increase absolute poverty by 900,000 and relative poverty by 800,000.

The coalition's reckless approach means that it is certain to preside over a huge increase in inequality and yet another fall in social mobility.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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