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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