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Prepare for class war

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Mark Easton | 15:49 UK time, Monday, 21 July 2008

Prepare for war against Britain's ambitious middle classes. That, I suspect, is how some will characterise the radical new proposals being put forward by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) - ideas which are aimed at closing this country's class divide once and for all.

The political fight for equal rights has tended to focus on the needs of ethnic minorities, women and the disabled. Until now.

Sir Trevor PhillipsThe chair of the EHRC, Trevor Phillips, spelled out "a new assault" against inequality on Radio 4's World at One today.

"We are not just limiting our description (of inequality) by gender or race but we are also looking at this extremely important issue of class."

This is a radical departure which is likely to be criticised by some as an implicitly political policy from a statutory body that must remain independent of party ideology.

"Focusing on the impact of social class on the lives of poorer families" and dealing with the gap between rich and poor will, in effect, mean taking on the wealthy and educated middle class who are adept at playing the system to the advantage of their families.

"The growth of 'vertical' inequality - of income, wealth, and power - is shaking public confidence in the fairness of the distribution of the rewards of economic success" argues the commission, citing a recent British Social Attitudes survey which found 76% of people considered the gap between rich and poor in Britain to be too large.

Indeed, Trevor Phillips believes the real threat to our society comes less from extremism, the credit crunch or global warming than "the unfairness and inequality generated by the hourglass economy". He warns of the resentment that builds up when there is a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots.

His battleground is clear. "We will not only focus on the inequalities that emerge from the horizontal divisions of our society, between men and women, between disabled and non-disabled people, the disadvantages faced by lesbian, gay and bisexual people, or inequality based on age, ethnicity, or religion and belief" argues Mr Phillips. "We also intend to address the vertical gaps - those between richest and poorest."

The commission's answers are built around the notion of fairness. "We want", says today's report, "a new contract with the public that puts power in their hands", adding that "this is clearly a moral and social issue".

The problem is that, even if you believe it is the role of the commission to achieve this social engineering, any power is likely to be used most effectively by the educated middle class.

When the EHRC talks of "petitions and referendums to create fairer communities" one cannot help but think that the activists behind them will be the same as ever.

However, the commissioners have identified a long-standing and entrenched social issue for the UK.

When it comes to the link between educational achievement and social class, Britain is at the bottom of the league for industrialised countries. Not my view, but that of cabinet minister David Miliband.

There are two principal drivers influencing movement up or down the social ladder - your education and your parents.

Labour has targeted resources to help schools in deprived areas and yet the gap between primary school kids on free school meals and others has widened.

SchoolchildrenSchool choice has aided those most able to play the system while for those able to opt out, Britain's private schools offer the greatest educational added-value in the world.

University expansion has also generally benefited the better off, in part because poorer families are less likely to take on student debt.

If the commission is serious about closing the class divide, then it may have to campaign around these issues - although I am confident it won't.

Any attempt to stop the middle classes doing the best for their children will be fiercely resisted, however much the polls say the public wants a more equal society.

And there's another reason for questioning the fairness agenda. True social mobility necessarily implies some people must go down as others rise up. And that's where the rhetoric of "fairness" often falls quiet.

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