Unlike many in the current Government, Labour’s concern for social mobility lies in more than wanting everyone to take Oxbridge entrance exams. We know that while talent is distributed widely throughout our society, the opportunity to realise it is not. This means that privilege determines life chances rather than ability and consequently raw potential too often goes to waste. We seek to advance social mobility because when people are held back by dint of birth we all miss out on the contribution they could make to our country.
In a nation where social division is inked into our educational, economic and cultural fabric, helping everyone reach their promise is the purpose of Labour in power. It is an ambition we know we still have much to do to realise. As the TUC highlights, half of a child’s future earning potential in the UK was determined at birth, compared with 20% in other countries such as Canada, Australia or Denmark. Under the previous government, action taken meant the trends underpinning this started to decline, showing that the state can and does make a difference to life chances if it chooses. However, the intergenerational grip of privilege on prosperity is still hard to break.
Should we therefore commend Nick Clegg for putting tackling social disadvantage on the agenda for the Tory-Lib Dem government? To do so would like thanking someone mugging you for your wallet but lending you the bus fair home.
Clegg is right to argue that social mobility is a “long term business” – which is why such concern is incompatible with propping up a government so ruthlessly focused on slashing public services for short term gain. It is difficult to see how individual pupil premiums will help students receive a quality education when most schools now face budget reductions in order for find funds for academies and free schools. By the same token, cutting tax credits, hiking up VAT and strangling the economic growth which creates jobs will do little to our chances of ending child poverty within a generation.
It is not just in the next few months that this government will make it harder for those from poorer families to do well. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition has cut the schemes designed to redistribute wealth and opportunity over the long term too. Whether the child trust fund, the future jobs fund or even the expansion in university places, thousands of young people will find getting ahead harder in the years to come.
In fighting for the future of every family, we must not let the Tories and Liberals get away with suggesting that money doesn’t make a difference – either spent on public services or in people’s pockets. Family prosperity is the basic building block of success and something we should want and work for, for every child. Public services underpin our ability as a society to build bridges over the gap between the haves and the have nots; to provide every young person with the best start in life whether they have wealthy parents or absent ones. To claim it is possible to up the pace of social mobility when cutting action to support either of these is as credible as Vince Cable’s job satisfaction.
But we should not let this debate rest on the role of government in public services and tackling poverty alone. Alan Milburn’s report offers a starting point on how privilege feeds access to educational attainment and the jobs market. But it only scratches the surface of myriad of challenges to overcome. Redistributing power and wealth is not enough to ensure the potential that resides within Britain is realised. We also need to invest in building the confidence, creativity and character needed to take opportunities as well as helping to strengthen the social networks and family support that breed success.
Too often Labour has behaved as though talk of aspiration and empowerment is code for moralising about poverty. As a result, the right claims ownership unopposed of the language of ambition and uses it to justify attacking the state – as they are now in their faux promises on fairness.
We must do more than rage at Clegg’s hypocrisy or campaign for public service investment. We must also stand up for the need for everyone to have the mentoring, peer relationships and tailored support they need to develop the skills and relationships that ensure achievement. Labour has to show how, working together, we can, as citizens and communities, support each other not only through good public services but also through good social relations. Let us also champion the culture and practice of attainment for all at the heart of a more socially just society.
Stella Creasy is Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow