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.

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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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.