Britain's Great Divide

Article excerpt

Byline: William Underhill

After 11 years of Labour, the gap between the wealthy and the poor is as large as ever. Why?

Any supporter of the British Labour Party should know its guiding principles. Just look at the declaration on the membership card. The party seeks to create "a community where power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few." Fairness is all. A child's chance of success in life should depend on ability rather than background. But something's gone wrong. As a resurgent Conservative Party now loves to point out, after 11 years of Labour government the gap between rich and poor is at its widest in at least 50 years and continues to broaden. Data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that while the real income of the very rich continued to grow last year, the poorest 20 percent in Britain saw their incomes fall. Worse, the chasm between the haves and have-nots is no easier to cross. Social mobility is lower in Britain than in any other developed nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. A 2007 report from an independent research group found that children born in 1970 were less likely to have climbed the economic ladder than their counterparts in the late '50s, and there's no sign of improvement in recent years.

Such figures make for bleak reading for Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a longtime advocate of equal opportunities for all.

He has called these reports "a spur to action," and promised this summer to offer a series of new proposals to tackle the problem by the end of the year. Among the more likely reforms: giving additional aid to disadvantaged kids in their early school years. Brown has no time to waste. His poll numbers are steadily dropping, and his party's defeats in recent by-elections in the longtime Labour strongholds of Crewe and Nantwich and Glasgow East--a particularly bleak pocket of Britain that few of the young manage to escape--illustrate just how hard it has become for the party to come up with a message that resonates.

Meanwhile, if the Conservatives once saw inequality as no more than a painful byproduct of efficient capitalism, it is now changing its message and capitalizing on Labour's failures. The new-look party of David Cameron is keen to buff its image as a champion of social justice. "In the past we may not have always recognized the scale of the social challenges that we face," says Chris Grayling, the shadow secretary for Work and Pensions. "We can't just walk by on the other side of the street. What we are now trying to do is adapt Conservative ideas and philosophies to achieve progressive goals." A policy document issued by the Tories last week painted a grim picture of a segregated country where super-affluence and extreme poverty are both spreading, but with no crossover between the desolate, crime-ridden housing projects and millionaire neighborhoods in the same city. It called Britain a "divided nation."

The charge is hard to deny. Superficially at least, Brown's Britain still looks like a country where the accident of birth can insure a lifetime on the right side of the tracks. Schooling provides the neatest example. Despite soaring fees--up an average 40 percent over the last five years, more than twice the rate of inflation--parents clamor for places at private schools, and the figures suggest that's still a smart investment. A bare 7 percent of children attend fee-paying schools, but a survey last year found that 70 percent of the country's senior judges were privately educated, a figure barely changed in 20 years.

Who's to blame for such disparities and rigid barriers to mobility? Sociologists point first to some big economic trends largely beyond the control of government. From the 1960s to the '80s the number of white-collar jobs exploded as older smokestack industries vanished, making it easier for smart young people to climb into the middle class. …