Dead Men Left

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The wretched of the earth, and Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson demonstrating “compassionate conservatism”:

The real divide is between the entire class of people now reposing their fat behinds on the green and red benches in the Palace of Westminster, and the bottom 20 per cent of society - the group that supplies us with the chavs, the losers, the burglars, the drug addicts and the 70,000 people who are lost in our prisons and learning nothing except how to become more effective criminals.

Yes, folks, it’s the residuum - given a suitably early C21 spin with Johnson’s nods towards libertarianism: let them eat chips. Of course, as before, he’s picked up on a genuine issue: social mobility is declining, and New Labour is doing precious little about it.

But cuddly, compassionate Boris has a remarkably short memory: indeed, two whole decades worth of palpable decay in public services appear to have disappeared: the rot only began when beastly do-gooding New Labour arrived in power. Yet here he is, decrying the expansion of higher education for reducing mobility:

As we all know, there has been a huge expansion in higher education in this country, and Gordon and Tony will not rest until 50 per cent of the population receive it. But this expansion has overwhelmingly benefited the middle classes, and especially the rich.

Absolutely true; but it was the Tories who started this expansion, and they did so by raising barriers to access for the poorest. It was the Tories who reduced the grant to negligible levels, removed unemployment benefits, and introduced a system of education through loans. New Labour has simply travelled a little further down the same road.

There’s another curious absence in Johnson’s outraged screed. Nowhere does he talk about inequality, instead peddling the happy myth that 80% of Britain are now comfortably middle-class, or even rich. This is ludicrous. Inequality in Britain has been rising almost continuously for two decades. The great acceleration of inequity began under Thatcher; things improved marginally under Major; inequality increased again under the first Blair government, and now may or may not have fallen slightly (PDF file).

The result is that, far from the income distribution cutely resembling a “bowler hat, or a python that has swallowed an elephant”, it peaks somewhat above £10,000, and then stretches on and on into the distance. There is no “great bulge” in the middle where we all sit contentedly. The Institute of Fiscal Studies report that (PDF):

In 2003/04, almost two-thirds of the population had incomes below the national average income of £408 per week. The distribution is skewed by a relatively small number of people on relatively high incomes. Median income in 2003/04 was
£336 per week – in other words, half the population had household income below
this amount.

Figure 2.1 in the IFS reports shows the picture very clearly. The top 10% all earn at least £670 per week – that’s twice the median. The top 20% earn at least £520 a week.

Social mobility and social inequality are distinct ideas, of course, but the one has a direct effect on the other, most especially through education. We’ve already seen that access to higher education is skewed towards the children of the rich. What’s also important is that earnings received from education are skewed towards the rich, too. In other words, not only is access to education biased against social mobility, but outcomes from education are biased against it. Inequality and social mobility form a direct relationship, through education.

Boris Johnson won’t address this, naturally: he’s a Tory, and the alleged “solutions” he hints at are equally old-fashioned: reduce university attendance, promote on-the-job training, and hark back to apprenticeships. Singing the praises of social policies in decades long passed seems an odd way to show how modernised the Conservative Party are; but better this than do anything that would seriously address social injustice. They remain, at heart, the Nasty Party.