In the post-Brexit chaos, concern about inequality is back in fashion. The smarter politicians and investors poring over the demographics and geography of the EU Leave vote, have realised that Britain’s widening social and economic divide – up to now largely ignored as the miserablist construct of lefty academics – was not only vividly real but had also acquired powerful political agency. No mainstream party can now ignore the divide.
And so Theresa May, putative Tory leader, timidly saluted the perils of poverty and inequality. An ordinary working-class life, she theorised, was “much harder than people realise”. She ticked off a series of “burning injustices” that must be tackled: extreme variations in life expectancy and educational chances; the gender pay gap. She highlighted job insecurity and financial insecurity. “Frankly not everybody in Westminster understands what it’s like to live like this,” she revealed. “What the government does isn’t a game, it has real consequences for people’s lives.”
All this is true, although remind yourself May helped direct a six-year austerity programme whose main achievement has been to benefit and protect the wealthy at the expense of ordinary working-class lives. She acquiesced as her government acted out “games”, from the electoral promise of £12bn a year welfare cuts (a pledge they gambled they would never have to implement) to the vicious, fiscally irrelevant populism of the household benefit cap, all with devastating consequences.
Her leadership rival, Andrea Leadsom, has also paid faint homage to social justice, with a jarring commitment to fixing “the emotional health of our nation”. She has won respect for setting up PIPUK, a parenting charity, and once wore a hat to parliament so that she could take it off to Labour for investing in the under-fives. But when the Guardian interviewed her three years ago she inevitably refused to be drawn on the wider context of cuts and poverty as a factor in family stress. She promised investment in early years schemes: but what has she to say about the recent closure of eight children’s centres in her own county of Northamptonshire, or Hampshire’s decision last week to shut 43 of its 53 Sure Start centres?
It is not entirely clear if either (or any) of the Tory candidates understands the scale of the social challenge revealed by the EU vote, or has the tools or appetite to attempt the major rebalancing required. The winner will, in time, launch the government’s Brexit-delayed Life Chances strategy – intended to “transform the lives of the poorest in Britain” – but that programme, with its allergy to redistributive justice and its wilful blindness to lack of money as a cause of poverty, looks more flimsy by the day. Will Hartlepool’s burning resentment evaporate after six months of attachment therapy? Will Boston feel better after a spell of life coaching?
Immigration was a watchword of the campaign, but inchoate anger at inequality – lack of fairness if you like, a stratifying sense of exclusion, of being left behind, of being fed scraps from the top table, drove much of the Brexit vote. The British Social Attitudes survey, published last week, highlighted this: support for austerity is no longer ascendant, most feel the class divide is insurmountable (and believe themselves to be on the excluded side), while belief in social mobility is practically dead.
The referendum laid bare a class and geographical divide, separated by access to economic and political capital, and a deep-rooted cynicism about the distribution of wealth and opportunities. The lowest-paid half of the UK workforce has had no rise in living standards since 2002, as soaring housing costs wiped out weak wage growth. Huge, lopsided local government cuts favour the leafy Tory shires. Even transport subsidies are rigged to benefit well-off areas.
Looking ahead, public services live in fear of an autumn Brexit-triggered cuts budget, while poor areas wait on the possible loss of £5.3bn in EU regeneration funding. The latest child poverty figures showed an increase of 200,000, with much bigger increases to come. Brexit inflation will drive up food and fuel costs (hitting the poor twice as hard as the rich, notes the IPPR thinktank) at a time when most working-age benefits are frozen for four years. Tax and benefit changes over the next four years will see a billion-pound transfer from millennials to baby boomers.
That the midwives of inequality consider themselves best placed to vanquish it would be amusing were it not so serious. “We must bring the nation together,” said Leadsom this week, without a hint of irony or shame. It seems we are all social justice warriors now.
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