Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

The final death of meritocratic Britain

Reports don't get much scarier than this. Britain, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, is on the brink of stepping over an event horizon of doom and becoming a "permanently divided society".

If action is not taken soon, Alan Milburn's Commission warns, this country's biggest weakness will become irrevocable and irremovable.

It highlights a fundamental failure: the breaking of the link between effort and reward. This is what meritocracies are all about - the idea that those who deserve to succeed will actually do so.

In 21st century Britain, the report worries, this idea is becoming laughable. It points to five million low-paid workers, a housing market where home ownership rates have halved over the last 20 years, public spending cuts and a brutal welfare squeeze as evidence that the gulf between the well-off and the underprivileged will become permanent.

This makes the stakes incredibly high. The implication of failure - that it will become simply impossible for anyone to make it to the top if they are born into the lower class - is so extreme it's almost unbelievable.

Still, that's what Milburn is claiming. Top of his list of the failures is the likelihood that the 2010s will be the first decade when absolute poverty has risen, not fallen.

"2020 could mark a watershed between an era in which for decades there have been rising living standards shared by all and a future era where rising living standards bypass the poorest in society," the commission says.

"If that comes to pass the economic recovery will not have produced a social recovery. Social mobility, having flatlined in the latter part of the last century, would go into reverse in the first part of this century. The United Kingdom would become a permanently divided nation."

Now it's virtually impossible to hit the 2020 child poverty target, a sin none of Westminster's politicians are prepared to live up to.

Milburn condemns them outright:

"None of the main political parties have been willing to embrace such a change nor speak to this uncomfortable truth. They are all guilty in our view of being less than frank with the public. They all seem content to will the ends without identifying the means."

This is not a problem the Social Mobility Commission suffers from. It provides an exhaustive list of proposals which are so wide-ranging the report feels more like an election manifesto. From more shared ownership options to fix the housing crisis, via a call to make unpaid internships illegal, to making the UK a Living Wage nation by 2025 at the latest, its proposals are far-reaching. Not many reports are worth reading in full, but this is one of them.

If you do actually follow that link, you'll realise the Commission comes up with a long list of achievements. But it also identifies the areas where it thinks Britain is, frankly, a mess. Talk about speaking truth to power: this report does not hold back in telling the government that it is getting, er, just about everything wrong. Here's a few of the most eye-catching conclusions:

- GDP per capita is still lower than it was before the recession
- Earnings and household incomes are far lower in real terms than they were in 2010
- Five million people earn less than the Living Wage
- George Osborne has failed to balance the Budget by 2015, meaning 40% of the work must be done in the next parliament
- Absolute poverty increased by 300,000 between 2010/11 and 2012/13
- Almost two-thirds of poor children fail to achieve the basics of five GCSEs including English and maths
- Children eligible for free school meals remain far less likely to be school-ready than their peers
- Childcare affordability and availability means many parents struggle to return to work
- Poor children are less likely to be taught by the best teachers
- The education system is currently going through widespread reform and the full effects will not be seen for some time
- Long-term youth unemployment of over 12 months is nearly double pre-recession levels at around 200,000
- Pay of young people took a severe hit over the recession and is yet to recover
- The number of students from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds going to Russell Group universities has flatlined for a decade

There's a reason government advisers tell new ministers, when they invite politicians from the other side to come in, set up shop and get them to tell some hard truths, that they might want to think again. This report is a litany of failure for the coalition. Worst of all, though, it laments the government's failure to be honest with voters about the spending cuts and everything they entail. It's not a report ministers should ever really have encouraged or allowed to be written, which is exactly why you need to read it.

NHS strike: A walkout by people who care about you

'Give us more pay,' the NHS workers strike today is supposedly going, 'or the patients get it'. But the truth is that the conduct of these compassionate, caring workers couldn't be more different.

It's an odd sort of tension. Usually, brinksmanship is the basic idea of any industrial action. A walkout, in order to secure its full effect, is about the withdrawal of a critical service in order to give those in charge a serious jolt. The very people who we turn to for help when we are most vulnerable are supposed to fold up their arms and shake their heads. They must deliver a stark rebuff to the politicians and civil servants, who have refused to implement a one per cent pay rise recommended by an independent board. What this strike is supposed to show is that they can't just go on relying on these people indefinitely.

Today's four-hour strike is a big deal. It is the first time anything like this has happened for over 30 years. And judging by the press coverage you'd think these staff had suddenly transformed from being our nation's favourite workforce to a bunch of cold, heartless villains. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Something of a theme emerges when you look at the brinksmanship of the striking NHS staff. Take Unison, the largest union involved in today's strike. Its message is that "we don't feel valued or respected by our employers or the health minister". But it explains, in a tone of deep apology, that "we felt it was important to explain the reason we are taking action today". And it says:

"We haven't taken this decision lightly, and we will do our best to ensure that patients are safe, but there will be disruption to your health services today."

The subclause here – that the striking NHS staff want to make sure their patients are safe – takes just the right amount of sting out of this strike. It is not about hurting patients, it's about hurting the bosses.

The most hardnosed might call this the language of equivocation. But NHS workers care too much. It is in their DNA. It is certainly why they are in the work they are. They don't do their job because they are motivated by money. They are not in the City making deals or selling secondhand cars. They are dealing with other people's revolting bodily fluids because they care. They are not the kind of people who are very good at being brutal.

The same theme appears again and again.

The GMB union agreed that renal dialysis and oncology patients will be responded to when they call for help in the north-west. The major and hazardous incident team remained on duty, just in case.

The Royal College of Midwives made clear that midwives will continue to care for women and babies and prioritise patient safety.

UCATT, the construction union, said: "The safety of patients is paramount, therefore if your workplace rep agrees that you are required to work during the stoppage then you will attend work at that time."

And the Unite union, in its information for employers and managers, stated that its members "will always put patient safety first". Proper emergency cover was provided as a result, but only in line with the service you'd expect to see on Christmas Day or any other bank holiday.

Its notes for ambulance operators states that members should only respond to 'RED' calls. This appears to be the frontline of the strike – the sensitive blurred area where managers request additional cover for non-emergency work. The union resorts to threats here. "Trusts should be informed locally that if Green or lower grade calls are upgraded, without good reason," it warns, "Unite will reconsider offering this exemption in future action."

All this paints a picture of a civilised and sensitive strike action. A full and complete walkout would be something to write about. People would lose their lives as a result. In stark political terms, that would be counterproductive. In human terms, it would be unthinkable for this group of workers.

So they are going ahead with giving ministers a jolt, without making it an unacceptably painful one. It will certainly create enough chaos to make their point, but it does not mean the NHS itself is suspended for four hours.

It is exactly what you'd expect from a bunch of people who have devoted their lives to helping others.

Defeated Ed Davey: I wasn't defeated

"I don't feel it's a defeat," Ed Davey told me. He was speaking immediately after suffering the Lib Dem leadership's most embarrassing defeat of this year's conference.

Davey, the energy and climate change minister, was left red-faced after party activists decisively rejected his attempt to back airport expansion in the south-east.

'Red-faced' is figurative here, not literal. After the result, which Davey watched from near the back of the conference hall in Glasgow, he walked impassively out of the auditorium amid a throng of activists - some delighted that they had knocked back his big idea.

Davey was the fall guy for a failed U-turn - a blocked change which would have effectively resulted in cross-party consensus on the need for increased airport capacity around London.

He had appeared on the Today programme this morning making clear Liberal Democrat ministers were keen to support Gatwick's bid for another runway because "technological change" has made aircraft greener.

Nick Clegg was known to support the change, too. It would have made any future coalition talks much more straightforward, after the the issue was kicked into the long grass in this parliament by the Howard Davies Commission.

MPs Lorely Burt and Stephen Gilbert spoke in favour of the switch. Gilbert implored Lib Dems to support it, insisting "environment is in our DNA". He argued: "Just as we must protect our children's planet, we must protect their prospects too."

His efforts were in vain. Instead Duncan Brack, Chris Huhne's former special adviser at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, wrapped up the debate with a firm dismissal of the amendment.

"Come on conference," he said. "Amendment four is simply not credible." He attacked the leadership for not coming up with answers about how, exactly, these technological innovations would be achieved. And he deployed a political card, too, playing on the party's fears about the next general election.

"What new voters are we going to attract as a result of this amendment? Will it make us more distinctive, as opposed to Labour and the Conservatives who both support airport expansion? Will it bring back the voters we've lost to the Greens?"

Roughly one-third of those voting in the conference hall actually backed the leadership. So as a disconsolate-looking Davey walked away from the auditorium, I asked him what he made of it.

"I think delegates weren't convinced the aviation industry is going to get their act together on the innovations that are needed," he said.

"Some people are more positive about whether this is likely to happen, but I think conference is sceptical. it's an understandable position to take. I've just been impressed by the way technology and innovation has delivered on zero carbon energy and zero carbon road tranport."

Most Cabinet ministers don't have to deal with a party conference defeating them on something like this. It would never be allowed to happen to a Tory or a Labour bigwig. Davey, who is not having a good day, was briefly speechless when I put this point to him.

"In a way, this may strike you as odd because in the Liberal Democrats we're used to having good high-quality debates on things like the environment," he added.
"I don't feel it's a defeat, I think in a sense either way we'd keep a stronger position on the environment.

"That's  what really drives Liberal Democrats - we heard the issue is fundamentally about whether or not we can get the innovation that's needed. One thing that the debate will do is send a very clear political signal that the airline industry has got to do better."

The airline industry will not be happy with this result. Nor will Clegg. Nor, for that matter, will David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Only the Lib Dem activists, grinning broadly as they filtered out of the auditorium, have reason to be cheerful.

Yet even they should be worried. Their leadership's position means the Lib Dem claim to be the party of the environment has been eroded once again. The issue may not feature in next year's manifesto. But if, somehow, Clegg and co do manage to make it into coalition again, the divide established today could come back to haunt them.

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