What is Conservative policy on inequality?
Last weekend, the Conservatives published a new document on inequality. ‘Labour’s Two Nations‘ lists a wide range of the UK’s social and economic injustices. Among other recent publications, it makes reference to the Marmot Review, highlighting its recent conclusion that:
There are serious inequalities of access to labour market inequalities… many are trapped in a cycle of low-paid poor quality work and unemployment.
The final report of the National Equality Panel, which concluded that levels of inequality in the UK are currently comparable with the period shortly after the Second World War, is also referenced. The implication is that a Conservative Party would do something to reverse these trends, and the report tells us that:
We need a new, progressive government that understands that we can only defeat poverty by tackling its root causes: poor educational attainment, inter-generational worklessness, and family breakdown. Only when we have done so will we able to defeat the scourge of poverty and inequality, and call ourselves one nation again.
So, what are the Conservatives’ proposals? How will they, for example, end the cycles of low-paid poor quality work and unemployment that they are so keen to highlight? Some possible ideas provided by the document are:
- contracting out welfare to work services from Jobcentre after six months (rather than 12 as is currently the case)
- reforming schools and introducing a new generation of technical colleges
- ‘extending support’ for people on Incapacity Benefit
It seems a fair criticism to note that, whatever you think of its likely impacts, this is a far from comprehensive policy programme. The progressive ideas from the Marmot Review (including greater investment in active labour market programmes, enforcement of labour standards at work and improving job security built into employment contracts) are not evident. The policy implications identified the National Equality Panel (including the conclusion that improving the level of the minimum wage relative to other wages is a potentially powerful weapon in reducing labour market inequality) also appear to have been missed. While recognition that the Gini-coefficient is a sensible measurement is a step forward from David Cameron’s previous position, there is little in here to address inequality’s root causes.
At best, Sunday’s release suggests Conservative policy to be based the view that social and economic inequalities can be resolved by the privatisation of public services, and that redistribution is not a prerequisite for poverty reduction. At worst, the Conservatives are simply using academic research to illustrate the scale of the social policy challenges facing the UK without any real committment to achieving change. The Tories may will the end of reducing inequality, but as yet there is no evidence that they are committed to the means.