George Osborne and Nick Clegg during a Cobra meeting at Number 10 Downing Street on February 12, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Westminster isn’t qualified to debate how wealth and power are stitched up in Britain

There is no guarantee that fair distribution of opportunity will even be a factor in the election.

Hereditary power is booming in Britain. The best jobs go to graduates of top universities, to which admission is fast-tracked from the finest schools, which cost money. Parents pay fees for the private ones or buy expensive houses near the best state ones. Home ownership is passed down the generations. Baby boomers who have paid off their mortgages finance the property investments of their children and the tuition of their grandchildren. If you are not yet in the club, your prospects of entry are dwindling.

Westminster is not as agitated by this as it should be. There is a shortage of qualified agitators. The alarm is raised by people on the left who are mostly squeamish about their own privileges and are liable to be called hypocrites by those on the right who want to believe that skill, not luck, delivered them into lofty positions.

History doesn’t demand that the elite close ranks. Britain’s upper echelons have been more permeable over the years than dogmatic Marxists like to imagine. The second half of the 20th century was a triumph of mass embourgeoisement, facilitated by Labour and Conservative governments.

No MP today says, as 19th-century moralists once did, that social strata are divinely ordained or that the appetite for advancement among the lower orders is sedition. The only disagreements are over how tolerable it should be that some advance faster than others (the problem of inequality) and how vigorously the state should act to help the stragglers – possibly at the expense of the furthest advanced.

In government, New Labour would not admit that Britain was becoming insufferably unequal. Ed Miliband now says that it is. The mechanisms that once transmitted prosperity throughout society are broken, he asserts, so wealth circulates incestuously around the elite. For the majority, incomes are stagnant and work is insecure. We fear being unable to provide for our children. The “promise of Britain” – the expectation of a better future for successive generations – is broken.

It is a plausible analysis but there are problems with its translation into a campaign. No one has forgotten that Labour presided over financial calamity. If British promises were broken, it isn’t just the coalition that broke them. Nor can Labour repair them quickly. There are limits to what can be achieved by taking money from the rich and giving it to their needier neighbours. British voters are prickly about tax rises. Ill-feeling towards the Tories for cutting the top rate doesn’t prove a surge of social solidarity.

Besides, tapping high earners to compensate the rest is not sustainable when the two groups are on divergent trajectories. The demand for compensation payments to sustain incomes at the bottom grows faster than the supply of revenues from the top. It is the middle that ends up getting squeezed.

That is why Miliband has talked about “predistribution”, which is a fancy way of saying companies should pay people more, so government can invest limited resources in the infrastructure of a fair society – childcare, elderly care, housing. It is a simple proposition belying great disruption. Governments do not meddle in private-sector wages or rewrite their spending priorities without conflict.

A central dilemma for Labour is how explicit to be in a campaign about the upheaval being planned. To boast of revolution when voters crave security could sustain the Conservative account of Miliband as a fanatic – an unsafe pair of hands into which fragile economic recovery should not be placed. But to present Labour as the party of modest adjustment is to offer no reason to make Miliband prime minister beyond the lone credential of his not being a Tory.

Much will depend on how desperate family finances feel by next spring: it would be a mistake to presume that voters experience profound problems as urgent ones. The Labour leader imagines himself reorienting politics in the way that Margaret Thatcher once did but Britain will not feel as obviously broken in 2015 as it did in 1979. Malaise is not the same as crisis.

The Conservatives have the opposite problem. They do not want to concede the existence of obstacles to shared prosperity that might resist the treatments already prescribed: continuous spending cuts (because streamlined states make zippier economies) and fewer workplace regulations (because employers hire more people when they can also fire them quicker). The Tories also want Michael Gove’s school reforms to look like the extension of private standards into the state sector but there isn’t any evidence that parents are buying that story. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms were billed as a helping hand to unfortunate souls trapped in poverty and dependency. So far, they are not. Charities and churches queue up to tell the Prime Minister that his policies seek out misfortune and turn it into destitution.

The accusation that Tories are happy with the current contours of wealth and power will be echoed by Liberal Democrats, who will be hoping to present themselves as the socially conscientious wing of the coalition. That claim may come in handy in marginal seats where Nick Clegg’s candidate is the only one who can rival a local Conservative. It won’t sway many voters elsewhere.

There is no guarantee that fair distribution of opportunity will even be a factor in the election. Ed Miliband will try to force it on to the agenda. The Conservatives will reject it as camouflage for the old class envy. Then the jury of generously remunerated opinion-mongers, cloistered in characterful London period properties, will ponder whether it is truly the case that all the advantages flow to the already advantaged and declare, in tones most dispassionate, that it is not. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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