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16 April 2015

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.

By Emran Mian

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.

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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.

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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.