Inequality will be a big issue in the general election, and UKIP could be the beneficiaries

Inequality will be an election issue. Ed Miliband and George Osborne have crossed swords over the issue, but it is Nigel Farage who has turned it most to his advantage.

In the run-up to the European elections, UKIP were promoting two big themes, immigration / the EU and “elites”; the latter including the BBC’s “bloated elite” and the “liberal elite” of the political establishment.

The response from UKIP’s competitors was to recite statistics showing the benefits of EU membership and that immigration is under control, and to accuse UKIP supporters of bigotry and stupidity. This response failed because statistics are next-to-useless in political debates, and because few people are won over with insults, and because the people deployed to recite the statistics were members of the elite: politicians, media types, economists and academics.

The response failed to convince anyone about immigration or the EU, and allowed UKIP to up the ante on the theme of “elites”: Nigel Farage said David Cameron “views UKIP as being members of the lower orders”, whereas Farage sees them as a “people’s army”.

Calling other politicians and commentators an “elite” is effective because it is true. Someone whose parents were rich enough to send them to private school is seven times more likely to become an MP and fifteen times more likely to become a senior journalist as the rest of us. As for academics, those people who view admissions to top universities as a matter of background rather than ability are substantially correct.

When UKIP performed disappointingly in London council elections, party spokespeople pointed to a “metropolitan elite”, again with some justification: median incomes of Londoners are 28% higher than the national average. The number of jobs in London since March 2008 has increased by 8.9% compared to just 0.5% in the UK as a whole.

The other parties cannot “out-UKIP UKIP” on immigration or the EU, so they have to challenge it on elites. They need to offer policies which will clearly benefit people outside of London and outside the elite. This means developing an industrial policy that attracts decent jobs to regions other than London and the South East, as well as a strategy to ensure the provision of the infrastructure that those industries need. It also means offering something meaningful – beyond the ‘entry-level’ initiatives around apprenticeships – to non-graduates; such as offering loans for vocational training expenses on the same risk-free basis as are offered to undergraduates, and requiring Work Programme providers to put people into decent jobs with a development plan attached.

The truth is that our politicians – including, ironically, Nigel Farage – are disproportionately drawn from an elite, and current policies disproportionately benefit that elite (people in the top 10% pay less of their income in tax than the bottom 10%, for example). Any party who wants to attract the disillusioned ‘lower orders’ needs to make a convincing case that this will change.

Duncan Exley, Director of the Equality Trust.