Not bad. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496