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

Show Hide image

The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue