Nick Clegg is wrong on fairness
Nick Clegg’s article in today’s Guardian is an important moment in the coalition government’s abandonment of the goal of reducing inequality. The article addresses other important issues – party politics, the scope for progressive governments in an age of austerity – but I want to concentrate on what he says about inequality.
Mr Clegg draws a distinction between old and new progressives. Old progressives aim to lift households out of poverty, new progressives do not see the attraction of this: “poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness.” The critiques of the distributional impact of the coalition’s policies have obviously had an impact: it looks as though the defence is going to be that poverty minus a pound doesn’t represent unfairness.
Now I have to admit that, until a few months ago, I thought that Liberal Democrats did care about income inequality (indeed, even the Conservatives were claiming that they now “got” the importance of relative poverty.) Their repeated attacks on the last government for failing to achieve more on that score certainly gave that impression. But Mr Clegg is very clear that if that was the case once, it is so no longer:
For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is.
Unfortunately for Mr Clegg, the evidence is very clear: if you aim for social mobility instead of equality, you will achieve neither. As our report on Social Mobility shows, the countries with the highest levels of social mobility are those with the lowest levels of inequality. Countries such as the UK and the USA, with high levels of income inequality, also have low levels of mobility. The best way to promote mobility would in fact be to achieve a more equal society.
Social mobility is not capable of providing cover for the abandonment of equality. That is true for “new progressives” just as much as it was for old.