An open letter to Nick Clegg regarding inequality, social mobility and fairness

Dear Nick,

In delivering the Hugo Young memorial lecture, you raised the challenges that progressives face in times of fiscal constraint. We share your view that these are timely and important issues to discuss.

We also found much in your lecture that we agree with. In particular, we welcome your commitments to localism, civil liberties and political pluralism.

We are, however, concerned that some of the statements you made may be odds with the both the values and agreed policies of the Liberal Democrats.

In your speech you make it clear that you view increased social mobility – not reduced income inequality, or the elimination of poverty – as the goal we should aim for as a society. In your own words, you wished to see, a “shift, from a static, income-based definition of fairness to an approach focused on mobility and life chances.”

We cannot agree.

Social mobility is indeed important, but so are poverty reduction and reducing the gap between rich and poor. Poverty causes suffering. The gap between rich and poor causes misery, social tension and intolerable inequalities of political influence. We need to tackle poverty, inequality and lack of mobility – not just focus on one to the exclusion of others.

The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution states that we aim to create a society “in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” And when we say “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty”, we mean exactly that, no-one. We urge you to ensure, that in focussing on the social mobility, you do not forget about those who are not upwardly mobile.

The idea that social mobility should replace the notion of “lifting people out of poverty” is, in our opinion, ill-conceived. The concepts should augment each other not replace each other. On its own, social mobility does not remove the suffering of poverty, it merely changes who is poor. Social mobility implies that people can fall as well as rise; and when they do fall, they need the assistance of a robust welfare state. Providing a decent life to those who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the bottom of the pile should be absolutely sacrosanct.

We believe that a well-designed welfare state promotes social mobility and ensures everyone is provided with a decent life, free from poverty. It isn’t a choice of one or the other; progressives have, in our memory, always argued for both – and so should that continue.

This is why we support, in principle, the Coalition’s policy for a ‘universal credit’. The policy should, if properly designed, give proper protection to those out of work and provide a humane incentive to get back into work. It is also why we oppose changes to Housing Benefit that may exacerbate overcrowding and homelessness.

You are right to imply that the last Government’s strategy for raising people who are slightly below the poverty line to slightly above was far from ideal. We share this view, if only because the strategy lacked the ambition to help the very worst off, or help lift people even higher. Although you make light of the goal of lifting people’s income to that of “poverty plus a pound”, we must point out that poverty plus a pound would certainly be helpful to someone substantially below the poverty threshold.

We also agree that to take into account peoples’ capability to live a fulfilling life, poverty of income should indeed be considered as instrumental to their life chances alongside ‘the non-financial, dimensions of poverty, particularly in terms of access to services;’ this is why we were concerned to the the Treasury’s own analysis showing that the budget (let alone the CSR) would reduce the incomes of many of the poorest people in the country.

On inequality, you unambiguously dismiss the notion that inequality matters in and of itself. You state that, “Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality.”

Again, we cannot agree.

Before the election you told the Equality Trust that you would agree to a ‘fairness test’ which stated that policies should be judged in terms of whether they would increase or decrease inequality (your response to the Equality Trust can be found here – this requirement has now been discarded by the Coalition. Crucially, at both the Special Conference in May and at our annual Conference in September, the party agreed that Liberal Democrats will, over the course of this Parliament, work to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

Evidence shows that socio-economic inequality matters for people’s outcomes and is a factor in preventing the very social mobility that you (and we) wish to promote. There is a great deal of data to show that unequal societies are less happy, have greater incidence of mental illness, violence and drug use. This is not just a factor of social mobility, but the strain inequality puts on those at the bottom end of the scale.

Inequality also hampers social mobility, as those with money have access to the means to create more money enhancing their advantage over time – precisely the concentration of power that liberals stand firmly against.

We urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to recognise that both poverty reduction and closing the gap between rich and poor are important in and of themselves – in a way that is at least as important as promoting social mobility. We also draw your attention to the fact that those countries with the highest levels of social mobility, lowest levels of poverty and most equal distribution of income, tend to be the countries where the State takes an active role to generously fund public services, redistribute income and actively help people find jobs.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the above and to a continued dialogue on how to make our government’s policy as fair as possible.


David Hall-Matthews, Chair, Social Liberal Forum
Prateek Buch
Cllr Paula Keaveney, Liverpool City Council

Geoff Payne, Hackney Lib Dems events organiser

Naomi Smith

Charles Marquand

Members of the Social Liberal Forum Council

Posted in blog archive
4 comments on “An open letter to Nick Clegg regarding inequality, social mobility and fairness
  1. Alex M says:

    Spot on. You articulate very well many of the concerns I had about this speech (and other recent pronouncements). Given the signing of The Equality Trust pledge before the start of the year, the tone of the speech was quite disturbing. But then again, we know that Nick Clegg and the signing of pledges can be a problematic combination. Glad to see you reminding him of it.

  2. Tim13 says:

    Absolutely agree – and the more of us who can put messages in to the leadership like this, the greater the likelihood we are to get back to Liberal Democracy as we know it!

  3. Nigel Jones says:

    I am glad you have sent this letter. I agree with Nick Clegg’s point about improving social mobility, but to use that to completely redefine what we mean by equality or inequality is to ignore realities. It should only be one part of what we mean by those terms.
    First, social mobility will take time to achieve and meanwhile the cuts in welfare will hurt those at the lower end of our society unfairly. At the Federal conference I raised the question whether the coalition’s proposals had good long-term aims but would in the short-term harm the less well-off in our society and my question was not suitably answered by our panel of ministers.
    Second, even when social mobility is improved it may well lead to some people being lifted out of poverty (or more likely their children), but those who remain in poverty will be worse off as a result of the new system as it is being proposed at the moment. Is this not what happens in the USA ?
    I agree with the proposed simplified universal credit; it can help to provide a more holistic approach to people’s circumstances, but if it is not set high enough people’s lives will not be improved. Then what about bringing in the living wage, to help ensure that people in work are better off than on benefits ?
    Both of these last points need to be included in a raft of proposals to ensure that we build into our systems a bias towards helping those at the lower end.
    Three other matters of principle which need to be built into our systems are :
    1. Helping people that need it must be done in a way which expects them to contribute, by giving of their talents, service or money according to circumstances. This brings dignity and self-esteem, whether or not they get a job.
    2. Governments at local level should be helping people to develop themselves; this is a principle which international aid agencies came to realise in the 1950′s and 60′s; hand-outs or emergency aid are inadequate.
    3. There is a group or community factor, i.e. getting people with similar needs to meet and work together. Simply looking at all this as a matter between government and the individual or family unit is not enough. Some people do not even know how to go about getting help or are very limited in what they think they can do because they feel isolated and lacking in confidence, and do not trust (or even fear) government agencies. Even some of those who confidently get help think only in terms of hand-outs and cannot by themselves think or act beyond that.

    Cllr. Nigel Jones
    Newcastle under Lyme
    Parliamentary Candidate

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "An open letter to Nick Clegg regarding inequality, social mobility and fairness"
  1. [...] Dems is between the old and new progressives. While most voted for Mr Clegg, now many in the party disagree. These debates are debates about who we think we are and how the party represents [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Follow us on Twitter

Blog archive