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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To win power, Labour needs to start talking about giving it away

From the House of Lords to First Past the Post, the Labour Party must seek reforms to return power to the people.

The signs were there in 2010. The British electorate failed to give any single party a majority in the Commons, delivering what amounted to a vote of no confidence in Westminster. Since then, voters have taken every opportunity to inform to those sitting on the green benches that they are not content.

The independence referendum in Scotland was closer than many had predicted. The Labour leadership election [in 2015] brought another rejection of the Westminster way of doing things when hundreds of thousands joined the party to elect a leader who opposed the New Labour platform. But David Cameron assumed that the Conservative Party was immune to this spirit of insurgency. Confident that he and his chums could convince the electorate of the wisdom of EU membership, despite decades of anti-Brussels headlines, he rashly called a referendum without considering the implications of defeat.

As with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, those who felt that their voice was no longer heard at Westminster saw the referendum as an opportunity to have their say. Driven by a dispiriting sense that they had lost control of their fate, to the extent that they felt this was no longer their country, they voted to make the rest of us feel the same.

The urge to dismiss this as nothing more than spite should be resisted. These voters feel vulnerable. If we are to believe the majority of them when they say they are not racists – and I do – then we must accept that their complaints about immigration mask other concerns. My hunch is that if they were asked to rank security of employment, of housing and of health care in order of importance, each of these would be a higher priority than security of our borders. And the terrible irony is that a Brexit driven by free-market libertarians is likely to create an economy that is even less secure for low-paid workers and those who rely on support from the state.

If the Labour Party hopes to engage with those vulnerable voters, it needs to win back trust by first showing that it trusts the people. Labour should make accountability its watchword, giving all employees statutory rights, especially those kept on precarious terms by profiteering corporations. A reformed voting system would stop parties listening only to the voices of those living in key marginals. A democratic upper house would offer another opportunity for engaging with people from beyond the Westminster bubble. Devolving power to the English regions, giving them the final say over housing, employment and health care, would allow voters to take back control over their lives and also create a better balance between London and the rest of the country.

To win power, Labour first needs to start talking about giving it away.

Billy Bragg is a musician and campaigner

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition