Clegg can’t increase social mobility without reducing inequality

The Deputy PM needs to remember that the most socially mobile countries are the most equal.

For Nick Clegg, the ultimate test of the success or failure of the coalition is whether it increases social mobility. Indeed, he has previously declared that increasing mobility, not reducing income inequality, should be the "ultimate goal" of progressives (obviously a false dichotomy, as I'll explain below). Today, with the publication of the government's social mobility strategy, he has a chance to explain how the coalition will succeed where Labour failed.

Clegg's plans to "open up" internships, which, as he says, "rig the market in favour of those who already have opportunities", are previewed in this morning's papers. Ministers will reportedly warn firms that they must pay young interns, or risk a legal challenge under the National Minimum Wage legislation.

In addition, the Conservative Party chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, will announce that the civil service will end informal internships by 2012 and that all vacancies will be advertised on a central website. Progressive stuff from the party that auctioned off City internships to raise funds at its Black and White Ball.

In their joint op-ed piece for the Daily Telegraph, Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, write:

Labour couldn't make up its mind on what goal it was chasing. Social exclusion? Income poverty? Inequality? Social mobility? Lacking a clear agenda, it fixated on just one measure of fairness - the poverty line, defined as 60 per cent of median income. This is a necessary part of the equation, but it is very far from sufficient.

Labour deserves to be criticised, but not for the reasons that Clegg and Duncan Smith suggest. It was the Blair government's unwillingness to address runaway inequality that meant social mobility remained stagnant. As I have repeatedly pointed out, all the international evidence we have suggests that the most socially mobile countries are also the most equal.


As the graph above (from the excellent book The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett) 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.

As Will Hutton's recent report on public-sector pay for the coalition government noted: "There is now good evidence that income inequality can become entrenched across generations, as elites monopolise top jobs regardless of their talent, gaining preferential access to capital and opportunities. This harms social mobility."

To suggest, based on just 13 years of Labour government, that redistribution failed is wilfully naïve. It took decades of centre-left government in Scandinavia to create the most equal societies the world has known. I hope that I will be proved wrong, but all the evidence we have suggests that the coalition's cuts will increase inequality and, consequently, reduce social mobility.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.