Theresa May refuses to defend Thatcher on inequality

Bright Blue held their first public meeting on "Does inequality matter?" Theresa May was unwilling to defend her party's record on inequality during the 1980s.

Bright Blue, a new Conservative party pressure group described as “the Compass of the right”, held their first public meeting last night in Westminster. Shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, Theresa May MP, and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee discussed the topic of “Does inequality matter?” with the Tory frontbencher unwilling to defend her party’s record on inequality during the Thatcher/Major era.

Toynbee outlined the British public believed that society was too unequal. She criticised both Tony Blair and David Cameron for believing that efforts could be focused on the bottom but not the top of the income scale.

May dismissed a narrow approach to inequality focused on “income and financial targets” and said that a Conservative government would examine the “causes of inequality” including access to good schools and worklessness. When asked by Left Foot Forward to compare the 1979-97 period with the Blair/Brown era on measures of inequality, good schools, and labour market participation, May was unwilling to defend the Thatcher/Major period. Instead, she pointed out that

“the gini coefficient is now higher than it’s ever been.”

As this blog has frequently pointed out, inequality rose dramatically during the last Conservative government. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Gini coefficient measure rose from 0.25 in 1979 to 0.33 to 1997. Under Labour, the gini coefficient first rose, then fell, and is now rising again. As May pointed out it currently stands at its highest ever level of 0.36 but many expect the recession to cause it to fall. Other measures show that inequality peaked in the early-1990s. Earlier Toynbee said,

“Inequality has continued to increase … [but] Labour has made progress. The 1980s was a cataclysmic time. If a bit of society broke off, that was when it broke off and we’ve never recovered from that.”

For May’s benefit, since 1997, the number of children achieving the expected level in English at age 11 has risen by 18 percentage points, and by 16 percentage points in maths while the proportion of young people achieving five or more good GCSEs is up by nearly 20 percentage points. There are over 2.5 million more people in work today than in 1997. Although the impact of the recession has been damaging, unemployment may peak at 2.5 million below the 3 million predicted by many economists.

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