From the TUC

Nick Clegg is wrong on fairness

23 Nov 2010, by in Society & Welfare

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.

3 Responses to Nick Clegg is wrong on fairness

  1. Tweets that mention Nick Clegg is wrong on fairness | ToUChstone blog: A public policy blog from the TUC —
    Nov 23rd 2010, 1:09 am

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  2. Clare Fernyhough
    Nov 23rd 2010, 11:29 am

    The idea of so called ‘social mobility’ makes my blood boil; a total misnomer in our society today.

    As we have already seen, more young people gaining a degree has not resulted in providing them with more chances of obtaining a professional career; many have resorted to working in call centres. The reason for this is quite obvious: there are only so many professional jobs out there and any who do gain a level of social mobility do so by pure chance, either by being at the top of their field after gaining a first at a good university, or by being in the right place at the right time.

    So if every single school leaver in this generation gained a degree who exactly would do all of the menial work in this country? Who would empty the bins, sweep the streets, clean the middle classes’ homes, work in the warehouses and call centres etc? Before I gained my degree (oh and by the way, afterwards I found out that there were no full time professional jobs available in my area), I worked for myself doing menial work. I was paid well and I did not feel that this was below me in any way, and it provided me with an income to look after me and my family and in the end that was all that mattered.

    So what does social mobility really mean? For me it reduces to one idea: to be able to provide sufficiently for oneself throughout life through the dignity of working, and to reap the rewards of that. Not so long ago, a couple earning minimum wage could afford a nice terrace in my street. Social mobility for them was not necessarily based on education, but in the pride of being able to provide for themselves and their family, working hard to buy a simple property for them to live in and for an annual holiday. Nowadays, even a newly qualified doctor would not afford one of these properties. One of the wages of the minimum wage couple would now be taken up with rent and council tax; they would be lucky to scrape together enough money for a one week holiday in this country, let alone aspire to buy a property of their own.

    The fact is that menial and clerical work no longer pays in this country. Social mobility will only really happen when governments stop giving in to big business and allow minimum wage to rise to a level that is a living wage for a single earner; at least £10 per hour should do it. Of course business leaders moan and complain about the curent level of minimum wage, even though they still rake in the profits, but what they fail to see is that if wages were set at this level there would be much more money in the economy to their benefit. People would have more disposable income to spend on their products, providing increased profit to fund the higher minimum wage.

    The other advantages to this would be the affect on the motivation of a small number of the unemployed who currently avoid working. If they were aware that they could earn a good living, no matter what job they had to take, they would be more inclined to find employment. At present, the new drive to provide incentives is not about ‘making work pay’, it is based on punishing those who cannot find work so that benefits do not pay, pushing millions of people into abject poverty. Consequently, those finding minimum wage employment are just as poverty trapped and less socially mobile as before: no new policy by this government so far has changed this fact. Compound this with increased social rents and no secure tenancies then this group of people don’t even have the security of a permanent home. How does work encourage social mobility then?

    I mentioned before that I did menial work in the past. The dignity surrounding it for me was that I was appreciated and generally well paid for the service I provided. In turn I worked hard and many times went beyond the remit of any particular job due to this. The problem today is that we do not dignify work that is not professional; we do not value it and we pay at levels according to that.

    Social mobility then is intrinsically connected to income then; life chances come about by a person finding suitable employment, and the ability to earn enough to lead a dignified life. Poverty in work is the most disgraceful thing in our society today: unless this is tackled we will continue to see an underclass on an increasingly downward path. In a few years time we will see that the spurious policies of this government were an outright attack on the poor, not at all designed to encourage social mobility, rather a move to keep these people firmly at the bottom of the pile adding even more despair to their already unbearable lives.

  3. Tokyo Gaijin
    Nov 26th 2010, 4:10 am

    I agree with your point about the number of graduates and their inability to find jobs for which they consider themselves qualified on the strength of their degree. This, along with the increase in the number meaningless degree courses that have small or no economic value, is exactly the result to be expected when over interfering governments set arbitary top down goals, as the last Labour government did. Not only do we waste money that could have been better spent providing more useful training but we also end up with a lot of disillusioned graduates who feel they’ve been misled.
    I don’t agree with your idea that increasing the minimum wage, this will increase inflation and decrease the amount of work available for minimum wage earners. If your idea that increasing the minimum wage to £10 would also lead to economic growth then why not increase it to £15 or £20 per hour ? surely the higher the better ? That you didn’t propose that suggests somewhere in your mind you know there is something wrong with the logic.
    How can it be that there are only a small number of the unemployed who avoid working when the lastest Labour Force Survey statistics show that 3.9m overseas born workers are employed in the UK and that that number has increased by 200,000 over the past year ? Policies need to have carrots (keeping more of what you earn in low paid employment) and sticks (losing benefit if you’re not willing to work) to be effective.
    The world isn’t fair, it never has been and never will be. The idea that we can somehow change that is wrong. What we have to do is give everybody an equal chance of using whatever talents thay have to the maximum. For some people this will mean high flying, well rewarded, fulfilling jobs, for others it will be the menial, but necessary, work you mentioned.