We often hear from politicians that it is not what we end up with that’s important, but where we start from. Or in other words, extreme inequality of income and wealth doesn’t really matter providing we’ve all had a decent shot at success. David Cameron echoed this sentiment yesterday in the Guardian, when he wrote of his belief in ‘equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome.’ But is this even possible? Not according to David Cameron circa 2009. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, and in a response to the publication of the The Spirit Level, Cameron seemed far more perceptive of the dangers of inequality stating that “[w]e should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle”. Needless to say, age does not always bring wisdom.
Unequal opportunity isn’t some administrative problem that can be hived off and dealt with outside of society. It’s dangerous to imply this is the case. Britain’s uneven playing field is created and perpetuated by our glaring social and economic divide, and a blinkered focus on equality of opportunity ignores that the fortune of birth is directly linked to the fortunes of our parents - conferring lifelong advantages on some, while consigning others to a lifetime of trying to keep up.
As the IFS has said, it is ‘likely to be very hard to increase social mobility without tackling inequality’. Equality of opportunity is meaningless when your background so routinely determines whether you get any opportunity at all – and when political leaders are unconcerned with where you end up.
Cameron’s party conference speech purported to reassure voters that his brand of equality would not mean “everyone ending up with the same exam results, the same salary, the same house”. There’s little danger of that in a country where parental income determines educational achievement, where CEOs are paid 183 times that of ordinary workers and where the average house costs nearly 9 times local salaries. Misleading hyperbole does a disservice to the vast majority of the British public who would like to see the gap between rich and poor reduced, so everyone has a fighting chance at a decent life of security and prosperity, and a decent chance of their families enjoying the same.
In his Guardian article David Cameron talked of the importance of name-blind applications to prevent unconscious bias and overt racism in job application processes. His efforts in this area should be applauded. Name-blind applications are a promising and long overdue method for helping to tackle other inequalities, like race and gender, and organisations adopting this policy should be commended.
But this doesn’t tackle the fact that people from lower income backgrounds still have to push much harder on the same doors than their richer counterparts. Other signifiers, like the name of a prestigious private school, or extensive unpaid internship experience, are the beacons that indicate to employers that the applicant is from a privileged social stratum – in other words, that they pass the ‘posh test’.
Cameron wrote grandly that ‘the long march to an equal society isn’t over’. U-turns like this prove it hasn’t even begun.
Lucy Shaddock, Policy and Campaigns Officer