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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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