Ed Miliband will make a speech in the north-east today in which he warns that Britain is heading for its widest ever aspiration gap between young and old. It’s an attempt to drive home his message on social mobility, which will be a key theme in the coming months.
Miliband will say that the “British Promise” that every generation will do better than the last is “being destroyed” – “there is a risk that the next generation will find it harder to continue in education, have a decent job and own a home than their mothers or fathers.”
Leave aside the nakedly political aspect of the message, which is partly designed to detach any remaining youngsters from the Lib Dem fold. It’s a classic bid for aspirational Middle England support.
Miliband may also face questions on whether the facts support his case given that he was a key player in the New Labour era, where social mobility didn’t exactly blossom.
The Cabinet Office itself produced a report last June saying that family background was a bigger factor for determining life chances in Britain than in France, the USA or Germany – even after 13 years of a Labour government.
Meanwhile the Gini coefficient – a measure of income inequality – rose between 1997 and 2010. The poorest 20 per cent of society paid the highest proportion of income in tax during that period. And the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds rose from 664,000 to 920,000 between May 1997 and May 2010, according to ONS figures.
Add to that the fact that, on some measures, the attainment gap at A-level between private and comprehensive schools doubled in this period.
It is not that Labour did not try to narrow the gap; but they were swimming against the tide. Ministers’ attempts to tweak the tax system to help the less fortunate were often outweighed by other external factors such as the housing boom, which punished those who did not own their own property and disproportionately enriched those who did.
Ed Miliband’s intentions are not unworthy; it’s just that he may find it hard to shake off the record of the government in which he served. People believed Tony Blair when he said that “things can only get better” under a Labour government; that tune won’t work for the current leader.
He is also not the first politician to talk about the generation gap in opportunities and wealth; it is an issue that has been explored in great length by Tory minister “Two Brains” David Willetts (pictured), who wrote a book on the topic recently.
One way the government could have addressed this unfairness would have been – last summer – to have cut universal benefits for the elderly, such as the winter fuel allowance and free eye tests. But instead it was the student loan system which bore the brunt of the cuts.
I asked Miliband’s spokesman if he would have done it the other way around if he had been prime minister. (Which could have been a concrete act to reduce the generational gap). No, he replied: a Labour administration would have cut neither. Of course.