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4 February 2011

What Ed Miliband needs to remember about social mobility

The most equal countries are also the most socially mobile.

By George Eaton

If there is one thing David Cameron and Nick Clegg want the coalition to be remembered for, other than reducing the deficit, it is increasing social mobility. So the charge from Ed Miliband that their policies will achieve the reverse is a potent one.

In an interview with the Times (£) ahead of a speech on the subject in Newcastle, Miliband warns that the expectation that every generation will do better than the last is “being destroyed”. The Labour leader, a keen student of US politics, outlines what he calls the “British promise” – the UK’s version of the “American dream”.

He will say: “We may not have given it a name in the way that Americans talk about the ‘American dream’ but it is there nevertheless.

“It is defined by the promise that each generation will pass on to the next a life of greater opportunity, prosperity and happiness. But for the first time in generations there is now a real and legitimate fear that the British promise will be broken and the next generation will have fewer opportunities and find it harder to get on than the last.”

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The theme of generational inequality, explored at length in theTory minister David Willetts’s book The Pinch, is hardly original, but Miliband hints at a more sophisticated approach. He notes: “The most affluent will be OK but it is everyone else who feels more doubtful about their kids. The class divide informs the generational divide.”

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The Labour leader’s focus on social mobility dovetails neatly with another of his key themes – the need to reduce inequality. As I’ve noted before, the most equal countries are also the most socially mobile. And, as you’d expect, the least equal countries are also the least socially mobile. In the case of the UK and the US, two of the most unequal countries in the developed world, social mobility has been in decline for years.

The natural response to Miliband’s words is to point out that the “British promise”, like the “American dream”, was exposed as a myth long ago.

New Labour’s disastrous record on social mobility and inequality means that Miliband may struggle to win a hearing. But he can plausibly argue that the coalition’s doctrinaire cuts will make the situation even worse. As he points out in his Times interview:

After 1945 we had large debts but that government managed to deliver on the next generation doing better. Compare the 1930s to the 1950s and 1960s – it was a progression, a golden age. Getting the deficit down is important, but if you focus on that to the exclusion of everything else, you end up selling out the next generation. It’s cavalier, where these cuts are falling.

In 1956, Britain’s public debt stood at 146 per cent – more than twice its current level – but was soon reduced, not through spending cuts, but through economic growth, tax rises and moderate inflation. As we saw yesterday, the speed and scale of the coalition’s fiscal retrenchment is strangling “the big society” at birth. It now threatens to do the same to social mobility.