Thursday, 7 April 2011

Why Nick Clegg is not a hypocrite on social mobility

As those who know me fully appreciate, I care a great deal about improving social mobility.

So, clearly, does Nick Clegg.

Unfortunately, I am one of those people to whom Clegg refers whenever he talks about those whose life chances are negatively affected by their underprivileged background. I also know many others for whom “social mobility” is a myth manufactured by politicians. I care passionately because, having grown up in a family in which no-one worked and spent many years of my life in an admittedly deprived Glasgow council estate, I want to see opportunities opened up to myself and others like me. Nick Clegg, similarly, recognises that in a liberal and democratic society, success should be determined by more than fortunate accident of birth.

Labour and sections of the media have been quick to brand Clegg a “hypocrite” owing to revelations that he owes his success to an internship – which in turn was owed to “who he knew”, in this case Lord Carrington, who recommended him to Leon Brittan. That’s a bit rich from Labour, whose own MPs have promoted the use of internships and benefitted from personal contacts; Luciana Berger is the great-niece of Manny Shinwell and the girlfriend of ex-MP Sion Simon, Maria and Angela Eagle are sisters, Dari Taylor is the daughter of former MP Daniel Jones, John Cryer is the son of former MPs Bob and Ann Cryer, Andy Burnham was a researcher to Tessa Jowell, Hillary Benn is simply the latest in a family line to sit in Parliament...and so on. All of these arguably owe their careers and influence to connections. This in itself is hardly surprising; what does surprise me is the way that Labour have been so keen to seize on this revelation and claim that Clegg’s background proves him to be a hypocrite.

So - he benefitted from family connections. He claims that’s what’s wrong with the parliamentary system – that progression is dependent on such connections and he just happened to be lucky. He wants the opportunities he’s had to be extended to all. I’m sorry, where’s the hypocrisy?

I’ll tell you where the hypocrisy is: it's on the Labour benches. On becoming Labour leader, Ed Miliband promised that he would ensure interns received the minimum wage. Not only hasn’t he delivered, he now points the finger at Nick Clegg for attempting to take action on internships. Even Labour supporters recognise this: one Labour activist tweeted “all this Clegg hate from us Labourites when he's doing stuff we should be agreeing with is making me a little sick.” As it should.

Arguing that Nick Clegg is a hypocrite for recognising that career progression being linked to family connections and wealth is wrong is plainly ridiculous. Is it hypocritical of my colleague to advise young people about the risks of drug abuse because he used to be a user in the past? It is not unusual for people’s pasts to conflict with the current views, which when you actually think about it is just as well otherwise no-one would ever challenge their circumstances or look to further themselves – not terribly useful from the point of view of promoting social mobility.

Clegg is trying to do the right thing. This week he’s put forward some proposals to take some overdue action on the culture of internships. My own thoughts about internships have been expressed before, but they’re pretty consistent with Nick Clegg’s position: that career progression should be less dependent on “who your father’s friends are”; that many people’s aspirations are being dashed due to a lack of either wealth or connections; internships are virtually the exclusive preserve of those who already have opportunities and are by nature discriminatory and unfair. Clegg also realises that the government’s priority should be to widen opportunity to as broad a spectrum of society as possible and wants a job market based more on “what you know, not who you know”. The fact that things were different in his day, and are still inherently inadequate, no more makes Clegg a hypocrite than it makes Tony Benn hypocritical for fighting against the privilege from which he himself once benefitted.

Such accusations are the product of Labour’s obsession with painting Clegg as inherently hypocritical and unprincipled, but this tactic could well backfire on them in a similar way to their ill-advised strategy to portray Conservatives as “Tory toffs” in the lead-up to a crucial by-election in Crewe & Nantwich. Clegg was right when he declared: “I’m not the slightest bit ashamed of saying we all inhabited a system which was wrong”. It’s a shame Labour MPs opportunistically derided him rather than applauded his efforts and honesty. Their behaviour was churlish to say the least.

No reasonable person would accuse Nick Clegg of hypocrisy on this matter. I stress reasonable...

I welcome action on internships. It’s overdue. I personally have difficulty with a practice that so obviously impedes social mobility. As I wrote on 4th February, internship is by nature “so biased towards those with means and contacts that there could be said to be an institutional prejudice against those who are less well off”. As we see from a recent Conservative Party fundraising auction – at which internships sold for five-figure sums – privilege and access to wealth not only buy places at public schools and therefore the best universities, but also determines who is able to benefit from internships.

I’ve been critical for some time of the accepted new route into politics: internship, leading in turn to paid work for an MP or the party, which potentially leads to elected office. I would like to be able to work essentially for free, gaining valuable experience. But I lack the financial freedom to do so, as do many other talented and capable individuals. And for all Nick Clegg’s good intentions, “proper advertising” of internships and payment of travel expenses is unlikely to make a significant impact in genuinely widening access to opportunity.

By all means, we should make internships fairer. But that in itself is only one small step towards facilitating more democratic opportunities. My own view is that internships, even with substantial improvements, are exclusive by definition and solely benefit those with the financial means to be able to work for free. Furthermore, I have concerns about interns providing what is essentially cheap labour and being exploited by a system that denies what are, after all, employment rights. How can this be legal, or even ethically acceptable? Surely it is time for interns to be recognised as the workers they are and legally due the national minimum wage, at the very least?

The fact that British political parties of all colours benefit massively from the use of interns demonstrates how exploitative and oblivious to promoting equality the “mother of parliaments” has become. Internships have become a new marker of class division; a first step towards a lucrative career for those fortunate enough to have wealthy parents to support them and a door closed to those who don’t.

And so, while I welcome Nick Clegg’s proposals on internships, I also champion further action to improve social mobility. When I walk around Greenock, Port Glasgow or Paisley, I am reminded of how much more work needs to be done. Social immobility is entrenched and deeply rooted within some of our local communities, where poverty of hope and ambition looms particularly large. Take Greenock for example, which has been failed by successive governments who have never been sufficiently pro-active in promoting new businesses to replace the collapsed shipbuilding industry. It is impossible not to recognise that the area is economically disadvantaged, a legacy of governments who cared little for the economic regeneration of the West of Scotland as long as business was booming in the south of England. Many with the means to do so are leaving the area, while those left behind are often dependent on benefits or low paid work. Fairer internships won’t do anything for people in Inverclyde or Paisley, however well-intentioned they are.

What will make a difference to our local communities is job creation. What is the best vehicle by which social mobility can be achieved? It is money. Money might “be the root of all kinds of evil”, but it also empowers. It provides freedom. And a more equal distribution of it would guarantee greater social mobility. It’s not rocket science: money aids social mobility and the best way to redistribute money is a growing economy and investment in new local jobs.

This is why Tavish Scott was right to put job creation at the heart of the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ election manifesto. There is no simply remedy to ease the injustice of social immobility, as I’m sure Nick Clegg knows. The only real way to create equality of opportunity is through a greater equality of income and facilitating economic growth that delivers for Scotland’s least advantaged communities.

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