Tories don’t do social mobility. Would Labour?

Writing in The Guardian last month, John Kampfner says Labour and the Lib Dems need to start preparing to work together if Nick Clegg wants to achieve the principles he set out in a Demos speech about an ‘open society.’

Back in September last year I wrote about the need for a “progressive alliance” between Labour and the Lib Dems, citing Ed Miliband’s increasingly liberal rhetoric and suggesting that the social Liberals can best achieve the goals of social mobility and social justice working in partnership with a reformed Labour Party.

My piece provoked a negative reaction on the Alliance of Liberal Democrats Facebook group wall, borne more out of historical partisan rivalries than logical argument. As different as Liberal and Labour philosophies are, a burning dislike of another progressive party is like the People’s Front of Judea hating on the Judean People’s Front.

Three of the four principles of an open society Clegg referred to in his speech can never be achieved in a government run by the children of 80s Thatcherism.

Let’s take the first: “In an open society there should be no unfair barriers to people’s talent and aspiration.” Although Clegg makes a distinction between his belief in social mobility and Labour’s focus on equality of outcome, the bigger issue is class; more specifically, the Tories role in protecting class advantage.

While it is true that governments of red and blue hue have failed to create greater social mobility over the past 40 years, elite Conservatives, more than anyone else, have the conservation of privilege coursing in their blue blood. As a party of property and the established order they have resisted the Great Reform Act, opposed the enfranchisement of women and supported apartheid South Africa, as well as continuing to hanker after a lost Empire, Toryism is the antithesis of progressiveness.

And from the Thatcher-Reagan restructuring of the state to the Cameron-Osborne massacre of public spending, Tory ideals of sharpening Britain’s competitive advantage have always been built on the poverty, misery and unemployment of the underclass.

Today four in ten places in Oxford and Cambridge go to the privately-educated, and while children with expensive private schooling make up just seven percent of the population, they occupy of half of all top managerial jobs. These are Conservative voters. They may be in favour of Big Society volunteering fad but will forever remain wedded to class-based advantage.

Clegg talked about “a distinguishing feature of an open society [being] a wide dispersal of power: both political and economic.”  The Lib Dem leader can be congratulated for pushing Cameron on House of Lords reform – although he still bears the scars of last years’ defeat in the fair votes referendum – but simply making the “upper house” more democratic will make little difference to a power structure built around the 100 swing seats of Middle England. A world where lobbyists and businessmen move effortlessly from the City to Westminster and back again before the Queen pins a gong to their chest. The Tories will never share a Liberal passion for radical reform, however passionate Clegg is personally about it.

Clegg said an open society should be about “a fair distribution of wealth” and he’s right of course. Achieving that requires something radically different than we have seen in generations. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have shown that since 1968 the poor have got poorer and the rich, richer. The majority of that time was under Conservative rule of Heath, Thatcher and Major. Much of the remainder was the neo-Conservatism of Blair.

The final factor in Clegg’s Demos speech was “knowledge and information.” To its’ credit, the coalition are undoing many of Labour’s restrictive practices, as well as letting the light of civil liberties shine again. Yet, as we have seen with recent lobbying and public contract scandals, real knowledge of power and influence are far from the public’s grasp.

We know that Osborne will never acquiesce to Cable’s vision of banking reform. While the Blair-Brown years were marked by as much worship at the feet of the super-rich while turning a blind eye to the excesses and reckless gambling of the banks, signs that Labour are learning from the error of their ways should be noted, especially when Miliband and Vince Cable are on the same page.

In a Boxing Day piece, Liberal Vision noted that we could be witnessing “a Labour Party we can work with”, so long as it is not the old tax-and-spend Labour Party. While it would have been pretty difficult, if not impossible, to work with Gordon Brown’s party – aside from the fact that parliamentary arithmetics made a rainbow coalition unviable – Lib Dems cannot remain rooted to a past view of Labour if that party has changed for the better and become more Liberal.

As I wrote in September, we Liberals needed to let go of petty hatreds and emotional tribalism and spend a little more time dwelling on the future of progressiveness, both in this parliament and the prospects for advancing a more genuine social-Liberal agenda after the next general election. I’m glad others are thinking this way too!

3 thoughts on “Tories don’t do social mobility. Would Labour?

  1. I find it remarkable that in one breath you say that Liberals need to let go of petty factionalism and to stop demonising progressive parties, citing that these arguements come from “historical rivalry” rather than “logic”, and then in the next breath you go as far back as the 19th Century to critique the Tories.

    Liberal Democrats need to be critical of both parties in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each: our electorial survival rests on the balance between our ends and our means. If we can only support the mythical “progressives”, then what on earth is the point in being a party of the centre in the first place?

  2. Lester, it’s like this. We are in coalition with the Conservatives – something we can still get positives from (for our electorate and for ourselves) if our guys work hard and work smart.

    One of the smart things to do is to attempt to keep some sort of polite channel open to Labour. After all the electoral arithmetic in 2015 might lead towards a coalition with them.

    However what we must not do is actually seek to co-operate with them at this stage – in a “progressive alliance” or anything else. We are in government- they are the leaders of the opposition.

    And please give over about “social liberals”. We are all Liberal Democrats.

  3. Toby, I was linking my historical critique of the Tories to present-day Toryism to suggest their instincts haven’t changed. We can see this in the policies pursued by Tories at national level (savage public sector cuts, housing benefit changes) and local (Hammersmith and Fulham social engineering) level. This is a world away from the progressive politics of Labour and the Lib Dems, even though we have many differences between the left parties.

    We are not a party of the centre, perpetually pointing fingers at left and right, we have a proud history of progressiveness, from Lloyd George’s social reforms, to his People’s Budget, to introducing old age pensions and NI.

    Denis, you’ve missed the point completely. Of course the arithmetic was against a Lib-Lab coalition last time around, however my blog post was thinking ahead to the next general election, and a greater sense that we are a party of social justice (I know we haven’t heard that expression much lately), and by happy coincidence so are Labour, albiet with a different prescription.

    We have got everything we are going to get in the coalition – more than perhaps most could have hoped for but perhaps less than is going to persuade voters to pick us at the next election. Without a renewed agenda with new pledges, a new coalition agreement no less, the rest of the electoral term will be spent merely modifying the worse excesses of Toryism, with little electoral benefit.

    I appreciate you disagree with me about the need for a progressive alliance, but we’ll agree to differ I guess.

    PS: We are not all Liberals Democrats, there are many closet Tories – at least in terms of their economic outlook – in our party, and who do not believe in using the levers of the state for the betterment of the poor as it offends their purist classic Liberal sensibilities.

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