George Osborne and Nick Clegg during a Cobra meeting at Number 10 Downing Street on February 12, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

GETTY
Show Hide image

Would you jump off a cliff if someone told you to? One time, I did

I was walking across the bridge in Matlock park, which is about 12 feet high, with a large group of other kids from my year, in the pouring rain.

Ever heard the phrase, “Would you jump off a cliff if they told you to?” It was the perpetual motif of my young teenage years: my daily escapades, all of which sprang from a need to impress a peer, were distressing and disgusting my parents.

At 13, this tomboyish streak developed further. I wrote urgent, angry poems containing lines like: “Who has desire for something higher than jumping for joy and smashing a light?” I wanted to push everything to its limits, to burst up through the ceiling of the small town I lived in and land in America, or London, or at least Derby. This was coupled with a potent and thumping appetite for attention.

At the height of these feelings, I was walking across the bridge in Matlock park, which is about 12 feet high, with a large group of other kids from my year, in the pouring rain. One of the cool girls started saying that her cousin had jumped off the bridge into the river and had just swum away – and that one of us should do it.

Then someone said that I should do it, because I always did that stuff. More people started saying I should. The group drew to a halt. Someone offered me a pound, which was the clincher. “I’m going to jump!” I yelled, and clambered on to the railing.

There wasn’t a complete hush, which annoyed me. I looked down. It was raining very hard and I couldn’t see the bottom of the riverbed. “It looks really deep because of the rain,” someone said. I told myself it would just be like jumping into a swimming pool. It would be over in a few minutes, and then everyone would know I’d done it. No one could ever take it away from me. Also, somebody would probably buy me some Embassy Filter, and maybe a Chomp.

So, surprising even myself, I jumped.

I was about three seconds in the air. I kept my eyes wide open, and saw the blur of trees, the white sky and my dyed red hair. I landed with my left foot at a 90-degree angle to my left ankle, and all I could see was red. “I’ve gone blind!” I thought, then realised it was my hair, which was plastered on to my eyes with rain.

When I pushed it out of the way and looked around, there was no one to be seen. They must have started running as I jumped. Then I heard a voice from the riverbank – a girl called Erin Condron, who I didn’t know very well. She pushed me home on someone’s skateboard, because my ankle was broken.

When we got to my house, I waited for Mum to say, “Would you jump off another cliff if they told you to?” but she was ashen. I had to lie that Dave McDonald’s brother had pushed me in the duck pond. And that’s when my ankle started to throb. I never got the pound, but I will always be grateful to Erin Condron. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser