Major doesn't name the real culprits behind the fall in social mobility

The distribution of power that the former PM laments was created by the surge in inequality under the Conservatives in the 1980s.

For the second time in the last month, John Major is attracting praise from unlikely quarters. After his recent call for a windfall tax on the energy companies, today's Telegraph reports that the former PM told a Conservative association dinner in South Norfolk: "In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking."

For a government as dominated by the privately educated as this one, the comprehensive schoolboy's comments make for uncomfortable reading. But before greeting Major as an egalitarian ally, it's worth studying his comments more closely. 

Major went on to blame the "collapse in social mobility" on Labour, which, he said, "left a Victorian divide between stagnation and aspiration". Yet it was under the Thatcher government of the 1980s, not Labour, that those now occupying the "upper echelons of power" were educated. The current distribution of power, with the privately educated accounting for more than half of all cabinet ministers, 35% of MPs, 45% of senior civil servants, 15 of the 17 Supreme Court judges and heads of division, 43% of barristers and 54% of leading journalists was shaped by decisions taken by Conservative administrations. 

The decline in 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 failed to reverse. As The Spirit Level showed, 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, have the highest levels. 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 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."

Nor can the last Labour government be blamed for David Cameron's predilection for handing senior posts to those who were also privately educated. As Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston commented following the appointment of Old Etonians Jesse Norman and Jo Johnson to the No. 10 policy board, "I’m not asked for policy advice, but just in case . . . there are other schools and some of them even admit women." David Davis put it more bluntly: "No more Etonian advisers". 

While alive to the symptoms of inequality, Major is unwilling to name the culprits. But even for the dissentful former PM, that would have been a heresy too far. 

John Major arrives to give evidence at the Leveson inquiry in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.