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How do the party manifestos rate for social mobility?

None of the major parties really grapple with the necessary work to improve social mobility, although they all say they're for it.

It’s been commonly said over the past year that worrying about inequality is now mainstream. Do the major party manifestos bear that out?

The Labour document may be the one where most people expect to find a coruscating analysis of inequality in the UK – and what to do about it. It is mentioned pretty early on: the first section of the manifesto comments that the rise in inequality has been “felt in countries all around the world”. It adds that the Conservatives didn’t cause the problem, but they have made it worse. For its own part, Labour promises to “ask those with incomes over £150,000 a year to contribute a little more through a 50p rate of tax”; it suggests that the National Minimum Wage will rise to more than £8 an hour by October 2019, plus a Labour Government will promote the higher Living Wage as well as crack down on zero-hours contracts.

There is a revealing hesitancy throughout this section. Notice the appeasing mention of “a little more” in the line about asking those with high incomes to contribute more. On Labour’s forward guidance, the ‘bite’ of the minimum wage – that is, how it compares with the median wage – Britain will reach towards the end of the next Parliament what the OECD average was a year ago. In this sense, Ed Miliband’s Labour marks no departure from Tony Blair’s Labour – the objective of this version of the Left is to nudge our market economy towards more progressive outcomes, not to take any profound risks with it. After all the flipside of the comparison with the OECD average is that unemployment is lower in the UK.

This is the right judgement but there is something else wrapped inside it: a nervous feeling about the future of the economy. “We will build the high-skill, high-wage economy,” says the Labour manifesto, recognising the task ahead, but it’s striking that there is very little policy offered on how to do that.

Intriguingly, the Conservative manifesto has much more to say about ‘industrial strategy’, something that would have had the whiff of corporatism and worse for previous generations of Conservatives. It talks about directing more resources towards “Eight Great Technologies”; “we will boost our support for first-time exporters”; “treble Start Up Loans programme”; ”£2.9bn for a Grand Challenges Fund”; “a 25 year plan to grow more, buy more and sell more British food”. The value of some of these measures is debatable but laissez faire they are not.

Alongside them the party sets an ambition to keep raising the employment rate. Labour’s critique is that the Conservatives will achieve this through allowing the creation of insecure and low-wage jobs. Even accepting that critique, the rejoinder might be that bringing the excluded into the labour market is the first priority, and levels of protection and wages can subsequently be improved over time. But then this too is Whiggish rather than radical, at best it erodes inequality rather than striking a hammer blow.

The firmest hints of radicalism are in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. As Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has attempted to provide a lead on social mobility – the soft way, perhaps, of talking about reducing inequality - for the Coalition. It follows that the education section of the Liberal Democrat passes beyond the clichés of creating a ‘high-quality’ or ‘world class’ system to talk about breaking down “the unfair divisions in our society” and reducing “the gaps between rich and poor”.

The Pupil Premium, funding that follows pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, was a key part of the last Liberal Democrat manifesto. This time the promise is to protect the amount in real terms, then “consider carefully the merits of extending it”. This is a timid commitment and contrasts to the ongoing progress the party wants to see on another of its signature policies: increasing the personal tax allowance, which by contrast is poorly targeted on helping those on low incomes.

Equally the document hints at wanting to ensure “fair local schools admissions” but doesn’t say whether the problem is rich parents elbowing out the others – or what to do about it. Fair access is an issue in higher education too. The Liberal Democrats are the only of the three major parties to mention it. But they don’t take the opportunity to announce a significant new policy or ambition.

While the Labour and Conservative positions on wages and employment in particular flow from a cautious view about the economy, explaining their reluctance to load both more jobs and higher wages on to it at the same time, the reticence in the policies of the Liberal Democrats perhaps reveals something else: a pessimism about whether politics and policy can figure out the processes by which inequality is created and how to unwind them. After all it’s probably too early to say definitively whether the Pupil Premium is making a significant difference to the attainment of kids from poor backgrounds. Higher tuition fees, many thought, would reduce the participation of young people of the same demographic; instead it has kept on rising.

In other words, these manifestos reveal that not only do major party politicians believe that tackling inequality is risky, economically as well as politically, they also believe that it’s complicated. As a consequence, the manifestos are less bold than they might be on the issue of inequality, but there are enough hints in them that manifesto writers do worry about inequality to suggest that a future government will want to take some calculated risks in tackling it, as well as spend the time to iron out the complexity.

Emran Mian is director of the Social Market Foundation

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change