Inequality in Britain: Nick Clegg vs The Spirit Level

The Deputy Prime Minister has declared a war on social immobility in Britain. But he is denying the strong relationship with growing income inequality. He should take a leaf out of the Spirit Level book, which has now launched an accompanying campaign.

Stuart Weir
2 June 2012

I am not in the mood to be grateful for small mercies. So while I recognise the importance of simply raising the issue, the Deputy Prime Minister's campaign on social mobility in Britain makes me very angry because he denies that greater equality is a precondition for change – and his campaign will inevitably be as flawed as were New Labour’s previous attempts.

What are the small mercies, then?  First, the need for greater social mobility is at least on the political agenda in a more overt fashion than it was under Blair and Brown. Secondly, Alan Milburn, Nick Clegg's rapporteur on social mobility, does understand that there is a clear link between equality and social mobility; and he has produced a robust first report that challenges some of the institutional structures and industries that actively promote social immobility. Thirdly, I guess, there is Clegg’s promise to provide free nursery education for all children from the poorest homes. But as with the pupil premium targeting schools with a large proportion  of children on free school meals, what we have here is a means-tested initiative which should be a broader class-based policy.

Reintroducing educational maintenance allowances and protecting Sure Start could be part of such a class-based policy; free nursery education could be extended for all. Investment in growth could begin with a building programme of social housing, before high speed rail, roads or extra runways. Investment in school buildings could be widened to greater investment in school education as a whole. In other words, we need a social democratic drive that builds on what the state can do with Milburn's first initiatives added and strengthened. Charitable status for public schools should not be exempt from real challenge.

Of course, this is all beyond Clegg and the coalition.  Meanwhile, an ominous silence on Labour’s part. (Please correct me, someone, if I have missed a meaningful intervention in the debate.) 

Key to any meaningful advance along the lines that I suggest is advocacy and argument for change. Here Milburn is already making a (small) difference. There is increasing public appreciation of the damage that growing inequalities are inflicting on our society, and the links with stagnant social mobility and its own damaging effects need to be made.  There is at least one group who are prepared to speak up. As a book, The Spirit Level made a substantial contribution by demonstrating empirically how unequal societies damage everyone. The Spirit Level has just launched an awareness and fund-raising campaign, with a new documentary film. I for one will join in.

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