Talk about inequality again, Ed. Get angry about it. You'll be surprised how many people are with you.
Talk about inequality again, Ed. Get angry about it. You’ll be surprised how many people are with you
There are two pernicious myths in British politics. One follows on from the other and both concern inequality.
The first is that inequality only matters to the left. The second accepts this while emphasising the greater importance of equality of opportunity.
The first assumption is relatively easy to counter: just 5 per cent of the public think large differences in wealth are necessary for Britain to be prosperous. Inequality is no longer just an issue for the poor (if it ever really was), but is hitting the middle classes too. The five richest families in Britain now own more than the poorest 20 per cent combined while the middle classes are increasingly falling behind.
Property prices are entrenching the wealth of homeowners while simultaneously making it harder for others to get on the property ladder. Average wages lag behind inflation and even prior to the 2008 financial crisis only the richest 10 per cent of households saw significant benefit from economic growth.
As to the second myth, social mobility is subverted by the inequality of outcome that meritocracy legitimizes – for the obvious reason that the privileges of the parents tend to become the privileges of the children. Countless studies show that social mobility improves in more equal societies. Egalitarian Norway has the highest level of social mobility, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Britain and the US are the most unequal developed societies and, unsurprisingly, have much lower rates of social mobility.
All talk of equality of opportunity without considering inequality of outcome is little more than cant.
This provides a huge opportunity for Ed Miliband if only he chooses to grasp it. The Conservatives are ideologically opposed to reducing the gap between rich and poor. The Liberal Democrats want the dish of fried snowballs that is a meritocracy with large discrepancies in wealth.
Miliband is reportedly convinced that the gap between rich and poor is the defining issues of our time. As he put it in his Hugo Young Lecture earlier this year, “tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics”.
So why doesn’t he talk about it more often?
There is a suspicion that, like Gordon Brown before him, Ed feels that he must to some extent hide his true beliefs through fear that Britain is at heart a small-c conservative country.
But on inequality this is a mistake. The novelist John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in American because the poor saw themselves not as an embattled proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. This sense of economic optimism has never existed in Britain and is light-years away from the country’s current predicament. People are thinking about how they are going to pay this winter’s gas bill, not whether or not they will be able to rent a yacht in San Tropez in the summer.
When Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership back in 2010 he did so on the claim that, during the financial crisis, Britain’s political compass had shifted decisively to the left. In terms of wealth inequality he was right – inequality is now as much a middle class problem as it is a working class one. The rich are buying up snapping up the properties the middle classes once lived in and their offspring increasingly dominate the most prestigious professions. Just 7 per cent of Britons are privately educated yet 33 per cent of our MPs, 71 per cent of our senior judges and 44 per cent of people on the Sunday Times Rich List went to private school.
The middle classes want to know that their children will be able to get on. Inequality is a barrier to that.
One of Miliband’s problems is a lack of congruency – there is a perceptible gap between what he says and what people think he truly believes, especially on issues like immigration and Europe. On the issue of inequality there is no such problem – Miliband is in tune with our increasingly unfair times.
Talk about inequality again, Ed. Get angry about it. You may be surprised just how many people are with you.
James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.