Politicians and thinkers from Marx to Major have spoken about a classless society. The reality for many remains as distant today as it ever has been.
In the UK, even after accounting for income taxes and the benefits system – for the main policy levers of redistribution, in other words – the top 10% have average incomes nine times those of the bottom 10%. The richest 10% of households hold 45% of all wealth. The UK has six of the ten poorest regions in Northern Europe, as well as its wealthiest.
Unsurprisingly this has real consequences for the day-to-day reality of people’s lives. Male children born in Kensington, Liverpool, can expect to live almost eighteen years less than those born in parts of Kensington & Chelsea, and the gap between areas with highest and lowest life expectancies has widened over the last two decades. These harsh statistics hide grotesque inequality within local authorities: even between wards in the north and south of Kensington & Chelsea, for example.
None of us wants to live in a society where your postcode determines your life outcomes. A healthy society is one in which one’s birth doesn’t contain a blueprint for the rest of your life. And we know by now the greatest defence against entrenched social division is universalism. If people start off life with the same opportunities, if their schooling, nutrition and health are not left to the lottery of inheritance, a more equal society will be the result. That is the lesson of social policy in this country and across the world. The experience of recent decades has shown what happens to fairness of outcomes when collectivism and universalism are pared back in favour of the market.
History shows us that unfairness, inequality and a restrictive social class system can be tackled and, if not eradicated, at least reduced by a strong, broadly popular and wide-ranging welfare state. Some studies have estimated that the rate of social mobility in recent centuries is slower than it was in medieval England. That is the scale of the long-term challenge that confronts us. When the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice produced their final report in September I compared it to the Beveridge Report of 1942.
As then, we need more than tinkering with the system to deal with the giant evils of today’s imbalanced economy which wastes so much human talent and leaves so many wants unfulfilled. The short-term challenge is to undo the damage inflicted by the political austerity consensus. The Coalition scrapped child poverty targets, and changed the remit of the Commission to focus on social mobility rather than child poverty or the inequalities of class, race, gender and disability that limit opportunities for millions.
A year ago, every remaining member of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission resigned. Regardless of their personal politics, they were dismayed by the Government’s failure to engage with their serious analysis and their pressing calls to action. One year on, I’m thankful that the IPPR are today launching their pamphlet Move On Up, helping to fill the gap left by the Commission’s absence over the past year.
There are some great ideas in these essays, and Labour will be looking at the content to see how we can use it to inform our thinking. The undermining of the welfare state since 2010 has punched holes in the universalist vision of Beveridge and others: it has hit the poorest hardest but has meant cuts to services and social security across the board, undermining the social contract which unites us and which provides the springboard for a fairer and more equal society.
At the same time, this provides an opportunity for a different approach built on a new majoritarian consensus. Where everyone can see the benefit of better funding for their local schools, councils and hospitals, and a social security system designed to support not sanction, from cradle to grave, across our country.
John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor and Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington