Sunday, 8 January 2012

The modern right don't want to see work pay: they just say they do

One of the central planks of modern conservative thought is that taxes should be lower to make work pay. The government should get out the way and let people be rewarded for hard work.

However, this is also one of its biggest lies. Because, to a huge extent, hard work in the UK does not pay. Wealth is increasingly being horded; house price increases earned thousands of families more over the past few decades than their day jobs ever did and, crucially, success is increasingly determined by the family into which a child is born, not the decisions that they take afterwards.

Social mobility - low and getting worse

One of the key problems with the UK is its lack of social mobility. A number of academic studies have highlighted the problem and its scale.

In 2005, the LSE produced a detailed study that compared the income in adult life on sons born into families from different income groups. It found that there was a closer correlation between the income in adult life of a son and his parents' income in the UK than in all of the other countries they studied, bar the USA. Nordic countries, for example, had a weaker correlation.

In essence this means that the son of rich parents in the UK is more likely to grow up to be rich, whilst the son of poor parents will be more likely to remain poor. Ironically this is little different from the US, despite the latter's myth of the 'American dream'.  Worse still, the study showed that in the UK mobility appears to be declining, not improving.

Fig 2: Report from Panel on Fair Access to the Professions
Meanwhile, in 2009, a report from the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions demonstrated the dominance of the upper echelons of many high status professions by public and private school educated people. In other words, the richest families are able to pay for the success of their children; buying them the success that they frequently attribute solely to themselves.

Unpaid Internships: the biggest barrier

The reasons for the strong link between the financial and professional success of the children of the wealthy are numerous - among them access to private education or well-regarded state schools, family networks and the relative stability of their families. However, one of the most powerful symbols of the ability of the wealthy to conserve and consolidate their position in society is one that is getting progressively worse - the unpaid internship.

Unpaid internships, particularly those that are full-time and long-term, have a pernicious impact on mobility. Whether they are in the industries  where these practices are more established (art galleries, the media, the music industry) or those where the problem is growing (for example in the charity and corporate sectors), the unpaid internship presents an almost impossible barrier for those without parental support to rely on.

Sure, a young person working 9-5, five days per week unpaid in central London may be able to find an evening or weekend job to earn some money, but will it pay London's increasingly extortionate rents? Of course not. And will it impact on their ability to do their day 'job' properly? Naturally.

So, what will tend to  happen is that the daughter or son of an ordinary family may be able to undertake such a position for a few weeks, perhaps slightly longer, but they will eventually need to drop out. Left in place are those with access to independent wealth - the proverbial bank of mum and dad. Hence those industries with established reputations for unpaid jobs end up being staffed by a suspiciously large number of people with double-barrelled names and plummy accents... plenty of Tarquins and not many Traceys.

The stories of those who have undertaken such schemes are numerous - and let's not even get into the scandal of charities and companies auctioning off unpaid intern positions for money. A number of sectors - not least the charity sector - argue that paying their staff is too expensive to countenance. A few, Oxfam included, are fiddling at the margins, arguing that 3 or 4 day per week positions are affordable for ordinary young people, ignoring the reality of the cost of living, particularly in the south east of England.

Meanwhile, the campaign against the practice of employing unpaid interns is growing - from Interns Anonymous, to Graduate Fog to Intern Aware. At the same time, however, the forces defending hese practices are powerful. It's not surprising that a Conservative MP is amongst those dismissing concerns of those that argue that work should be paid. It's never ceases to surprise that many will talk about meritocracy and the value of hard work, but will happily kick the ladder away when it suits.

Rewarding hard work: the myth created by the modern right

It is in their ambivalence towards unpaid internships that the true ideology of modern Conservatism rears its head. For despite the favourite myth the modern right likes to peddle - that it seeks to reduce the roll of government and lower taxation all to allow those that work hard to be rewarded accordingly - the truth is that all the modern Tory Party is really concerned about is ensuring the wealthy protect their position.

Hence, given a choice, income tax is judged 'fairer' than inheritance tax, even though inherited wealth is totally unearned. Witness too their visceral hatred of any attempt to increase taxes on property or assets. Finally, judge them by their attitude towards maintaining the charitable status of private schools: a surefire method by which those with the most income ensure that their children don't have to fight on a level playing field.

It is the latter that the Tory Party would never wish to see - a level playing field. But without one, the lie that those that those that do best in life are those that work hardest is laid bare. And the central plank of right-wing economic policies collapse beneath it.

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