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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.