Cameron can't talk about social mobility until he talks about inequality

The PM's refusal to acknowledge how the gap between the rich and the poor shapes opportunity shows he far he is from solving the problem.

After his spokesman's brusque dismissal of John Major's comments on social mobility earlier this week ("what counts is not where you come from but where you are going," was the non sequitur offered), David Cameron has issued a lengthier response to the former PM's fusillade. He told reporters on the first evening of his trip to India:

You only have to look at the make-up of the high levels of parliament, the judiciary, the army, the media. It's not as diverse; there's not as much social mobility as there needs to be...I agree with [Major] that we need a far more socially mobile country. That is something we need to do far more about … We are making some progress but it's not fast enough and we need to go further and faster.

What I want to see is a more socially mobile Britain. I want to see a Britain where no matter where you come from, what god you worship, the colour of your skin, what community you belong to, you can get to the top in television, the judiciary, armed services, politics, newspapers. A lot of these areas are important.

Few will disagree with that, but read the latest comments made by Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister and the government's adviser on social mobility, and it becomes clear how little Cameron has engaged with the problem. Milburn rightly noted that "deep-rooted inequality and flatlining mobility have been decades in the making" and that "in most developed countries there has been a declining share of economic growth going to labour (and a higher share to capital) at the same time as there has been growing wage inequality. In the UK, the share of national income going to wages of workers in the bottom half of the earnings distribution decreased by a quarter between 1979 and 2009." 

The UK's stagnant and even declining social mobility owes much to the surge in inequality that took place after 1979 (the gini coefficient rose from 12.9 in 1978 to 22.2 in 1990), which Labour, to its shame, failed to halt. As the graph below from the empirical masterpiece The Spirit Level shows, it is the most unequal countries, such as the UK and the US, that have the lowest levels of social mobility, while the most equal, such as Sweden, Canada and Japan, that have the highest.

This is hardly surprising: it's harder to climb the ladder when the rungs are further apart. As Will Hutton's report on public sector pay for the coalition 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."

There was a time when Cameron was prepared to draw on such insights. In his 2009 Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, he noted:

Research by Richard Wilkson and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it's the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator. In "The Spirit Level", they show that per capita GDP is much less significant for a country's life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest in the population. So the best indicator of a country's rank on these measures of general well-being is not the difference in wealth between them, but the difference in wealth within them.

But he has since resorted to Thatcherite type, treating the size of the gap between the rich and the poor as an irrelevance and offering only a more elegant version of Norman Tebbit's "get on your bike". "You’ve got to get out there and find people, win them over, get them to raise aspirations and get them to think that they can get all the way to the top," he said last night. 

Some coalition ministers have recently pointed to data showing that inequality fell to its lowest level since 1986 in 2011/12 as evidence that the coalition is widening opportunity even at a time of austerity. But this is not as surprising as they suggest; it's normal in times of economic stagnation for inequality to fall as middle class earnings decline and the automatic stabilisers maintain the incomes of the poorest. The decision of high earners to defer earnings until 2012/13 in order to benefit from the cut in the top rate of tax is also likely to be a factor. But it's still a finding the Tories hail as they seek to prove that "we're all in this together".  

They would be wise, however, to resist the temptation to do so. Owing to the coalition's welfare cuts, many of which only took effect this year, inequality is forecast to significantly increase between now and 2015-16. In particular, George Osborne's decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for at least three years (an unprecedented real-terms cut) means the poorest will see a sharp fall in their incomes. The IFS expects inequality "to rise again from 2011–12, almost (but not quite) reaching its pre-recession level by 2015–16." While the Tories can take little credit for the fall in inequality (which is largely due the decline in real earnings), they will deserve the blame for the rise. 

Cameron's refusal to even acknowledge this problem, and its implications for social mobility, shows how far he is from living up to his rhetoric of spreading opportunity. 

David Cameron speaks at the CBI's annual conference on 4 November 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Leon Neal/ Getty
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“Brexit is based on racism”: Who is protesting outside the Supreme Court and what are they fighting for?

Movement for Justice is challenging the racist potential of Brexit, as the government appeals the High Court's Article 50 decision.

Protestors from the campaign group Movement for Justice are demonstrating outside the Supreme Court for the second day running. They are against the government triggering Article 50 without asking MPs, and are protesting against the Brexit vote in general. They plan to remain outside the Supreme Court for the duration of the case, as the government appeals the recent High Court ruling in favour of Parliament.

Their banners call to "STOP the scapgoating of immigrants", to "Build the movement against austerity & FOR equality", and to "Stop Brexit Fight Racism".

The group led Saturday’s march at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre, where a crowd of over 2,000 people stood against the government’s immigration policy, and the management of the centre, which has long been under fire for claims of abuse against detainees.  

Movement for Justice, and its 50 campaigners, were in the company yesterday of people from all walks of pro and anti-Brexit life, including the hangers-on from former Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s postponed march on the Supreme Court.

Antonia Bright, one of the campaign’s lead figures, says: “It is in the interests of our fight for freedom of movement that the Supreme Court blocks May’s attempt to rush through an anti-immigrant deal.”

This sentiment is echoed by campaigners on both sides of the referendum, many of whom believe that Parliament should be involved.

Alongside refuting the royal prerogative, the group criticises the Brexit vote in general. Bright says:

“The bottom line is that Brexit represents an anti-immigrant movement. It is based on racism, so regardless of how people intended their vote, it will still be a decision that is an attack on immigration.”

A crucial concern for the group is that the terms of the agreement will set a precedent for anti-immigrant policies that will heighten aggression against ethnic communities.

This concern isn’t entirely unfounded. The National Police Chief’s Council recorded a 58 per cent spike in hate crimes in the week following the referendum. Over the course of the month, this averaged as a 41 per cent increase, compared with the same time the following year.

The subtext of Bright's statement is not only a dissatisfaction with the result of the EU referendum, but the process of the vote itself. It voices a concern heard many times since the vote that a referendum is far too simple a process for a desicion of such momentous consequences. She also draws on the gaping hole between people's voting intentions and the policy that is implemented.

This is particularly troubling when the competitive nature of multilateral bargaining allows the government to keep its cards close to its chest on critical issues such as freedom of movement and trade agreements. Bright insists that this, “is not a democratic process at all”.

“We want to positively say that there does need to be scrutiny and transparency, and an opening up of this question, not just a rushing through on the royal prerogative,” she adds. “There needs to be transparency in everything that is being negotiated and discussed in the public realm.”

For campaigners, the use of royal prerogative is a sinister symbol of the government deciding whatever it likes, without consulting Parliament or voters, during the future Brexit negotiations. A ruling in the Supreme Court in favour of a parliamentary vote would present a small but important reassurance against these fears.