The poverty of Nick Clegg’s “new” progressives

Nick Clegg’s Hugo Young speech last night is already generating plenty of comment in the old and new media. It was structured around a distinction between “old” and “new” progressives which is highly contestable. The characterisation of “old” progressives was not even a gross simplification. It was a caricature which, as Next Left has pointed out, is not readily anchored in any identifiable thinkers or contemporary policy position. Clegg’s view of old progressives – which would appear to encompass quite a chunk of his own party – is that they have both a simplistic and a static view of the world. To say that it was a straw man, or straw person, would be to do a disservice to cereal-based hominids.

On the other hand, “new” progressive policy would appear to encompass everything that Clegg and his new friend Dave are planning to do.

Clegg’s speech undoubtedly focused upon some of the most pressing issues facing policy, but it would be possible to spend a long time pulling apart the vagueness, inconsistency, and absurdity that are embedded within it. One of the things that Clegg is very weak on, it seems to me, is chronology. For example, no party was planning not to cut the deficit over the relatively short term, so the idea that the alternative to the Coalition’s shock tactics is to leave vast mountains of debt for our children to deal with is nonsense – if by that Clegg means that when our children reach prime wage earning age they are subject to a vastly higher burden of tax to pay for this generation’s profligacy. Equally, he tries to argue that rather than focusing on the redistribution of income now we should focus on social mobility and equality of opportunity. Of course no liberal could sensibly disagree that social mobility and equality of opportunity are desirable, but we have to keep a sense of perspective over how these mechanisms work and over what timescale. The pupil premium might well be a great idea, but as a matter of logic it’s going to take more than a decade before it could have any impact upon anyone’s chances of getting into Oxbridge, for example. Meanwhile there are people with insufficient resources to live on now.

But rather than go through the speech in forensic detail I wanted to pick up on just one point. It either displays the disingenuousness or poverty of thought behind the speech. That is for the reader to decide.

A key theme of Clegg’s speech was “poverty and fairness”. In this part of the speech Clegg argues that:

“Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with incomes currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty …

the weakness of the old progressive approach is that it leads to huge amounts of money being devoted to changing the financial position of these households by fairly small amounts — just enough, in many cases, to get them above the line. But poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness …

The other weakness of this approach is that it pays insufficient attention to the non-financial, dimensions of poverty, particularly in terms of access to services. Of course it is better to have more money, even if it is only a little more. But poverty is also about the quality of the local school, access to good health services and fear of crime.

So the old progressive approach to poverty is too narrow. But it is also too static. Can we really think that a society in which people are temporarily lifted above a statistical line by a few pounds is, in the long run, fairer than one in which opportunity is genuinely dispersed and people’s future life chances are fundamentally improved?

Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation. That’s when societies become closed, stratified and divided. For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is …

The shift, from a static, income-based definition of fairness to an approach focused on mobility and life chances also informs the government’s approach to the funding of higher education.”

This argument shows a breathtaking failure to acknowledge how poverty has been understood and analyzed. Since Peter Townsend’s work in the 1970s argued for the idea of relative poverty there has been an acute awareness that poverty is about more than income: it is about linking an absence of income to barriers to social participation (ie. the non-financial dimensions).

Equally importantly, from the mid-1990s a considerable amount of effort has been put into moving beyond poverty to think in terms of social exclusion. Interestingly, “social exclusion” is a term that appears to have been excised from the political lexicon. Social exclusion is precisely a multi-dimensional process which recognises that social participation and life chances can be impaired through complex and interlinked financial and non-financial mechanisms that act to compound disadvantage.

Under the previous government the Cabinet Office commissioned a substantial programme of work from a range of research teams to develop the theory and measurement of social exclusion. A landmark publication was the 2007 report by researchers at the University of Bristol The multi-dimensional analysis of social exclusion.

Indeed, Nick Clegg might like to peruse the archives of the Cabinet Office because it is very easy to discover that there has been quite a bit of more sophisticated thinking done on this topic and that much of it was done in his vicinity (an overview of the issues can be found here).

For anyone interested in pursuing these issues further, one place to start would be to look here.

We could no doubt interrogate other areas of Clegg’s speech and find them similarly wanting. But that isn’t really the point. The country faces pressing issues and identifying routes forward in the face of fiscal austerity is a formidable challenge. Policy needs to tap into the highest quality analysis available to maximise the chances of success. On last night’s performance, the signs that it is currently doing so are not encouraging.

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