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.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.