Unfortunately, no-one in British politics is serious about social mobility

by Kevin Meagher

Everyone in British politics is interested in ending world hunger. Everyone is interested in saving the environment. And everyone, it seems, is interested in improving social mobility.

Barely a week goes by without someone sounding off about its importance. Ed Miliband makes weighty speeches about it. So does Nick Clegg. Michael Gove. David Cameron. Et cetera, et cetera.

But being interested in something is not the same as not being serious about it. Simply wanting to narrow the gap between the circumstances of someone’s birth and what they subsequently get to make of their life is hopelessly, pathetically, inadequate.

Especially when the scale of the problem is so daunting. Labour grandee Alan Milburn, the Chair of the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, describes social mobility as “the new holy grail of public policy”.

In a speech to the Resolution Foundation last week, he set out the dizzying scale of the challenge facing his commission:

“We conclude that the statutory goal of ending child poverty by 2020 will in all likelihood be missed by a considerable margin, perhaps by as many as 3 million children. We conclude too that the economic recovery…is unlikely to halt the trend of the last decade, where the top part of society prospers and the bottom part stagnates. If that happens social inequality will widen and the rungs of the social ladder will grow further apart. Poverty will rise. At best, mobility will stall. At worst, it will reverse.”

Unfortunately, no-one – absolutely no-one – in British politics is really serious about backing-up their pious invocations with practical action. An intermittent harrumph of indignation is followed well, by, nothing.

But what can be done? There are no painless answers to improving social mobility – and that’s the nub of the problem.

We could, for instance, level punitive taxes on inherited, unearned wealth and assets. We could scrap private education which gives a lifetime head start to the privileged. We could iron out the wretched hierarchies in our university system which lock-in a sneery, old-world superiority in you went to a Russell Group university, (never mind the inter-galactic sense of entitlement if you went to Oxbridge).

And we could finally get serious about economic geography – using public money more equitably to disperse economic opportunity around the country, rather than deliberately congregating our political, economic and cultural centres in London and the South East of England, at the expense of everywhere else.

But none of this – absolutely none of it – will come to pass. There is simply not enough raw political will to pursue any of these measures, from any corner of British politics.

These would be big, crunching changes that upset powerful vested interests and would represent a full-frontal assault on a status quo that sees the wealthy and well-connected fortify their in-built social, economic and geographic advantages.

And in a political discourse framed around worshipping ambition, any accusation of levelling-down – let alone “the politics of envy” – is the equivalent of slugging hemlock.

Even organisations like the Sutton Trust – which does a lot of valuable thinking about social mobility – suffer from a poverty of ambition; offering little more the suggestion that we should subsidise a few more bright working-class kids to go to private schools by resurrecting the assisted places scheme.

This is a depressing, circular debate that inevitably leads us back to the hoary old claim that grammar schools were engines of social mobility. They might have been for the kids attending them; but they did so by consigning two thirds of children who didn’t hit their stride in a single examination at age eleven to a future eking out a living by “working with their hands.”

Alas, our politicians have even fewer answers than our think tanks. Hardly surprising, perhaps, as our political system has now become a bastion of social inequality.

A third of our MPs are now privately-educated and the professionalization of politics over the last two decades has seen Westminster become a cosy, self-perpetuating club of people who have been sparring with each other since university. David Cameron may well be the poshest Tory leader since Alec Douglas-Home, but the Labour frontbench is the poshest in my lifetime – and getting posher.

To understand why, you have to look upstream. Working-class kids with degrees from provincial universities don’t get to intern at think tanks, or at the BBC. They don’t get to flounce around Portcullis House as some MP’s unpaid lackey, or slave away for political parties or pressure groups for month after month for little more than expenses, before leap-frogging, inevitably,  into their first permanent role.

These opportunities are reserved for those who can afford to live or commute into central London every day for little or no pay. They are golden chances beyond the league of working-class kids who don’t have connected parents able to open doors for them. (In fact, they are all too often beyond the reach of the provincial lower middle class too).

After a flurry of recent activity we probably won’t hear much about social mobility for a while. It’s had its airing. The box has been ticked. Brows have furrowed in unison at Westminster and everyone has agreed that “something must be done”.

And we can be sure, as ever, that nothing will be.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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15 Responses to “Unfortunately, no-one in British politics is serious about social mobility”

  1. Jack Holroyde says:

    “We could scrap private education which gives a lifetime head start to the privileged.”
    Is there any evidence that this will benefit most children? Is it not just an abitrary removal of a basic choice based on the authors mistrust of private teaching?

    “We could iron out the wretched hierarchies in our university system”

    This reads like a cross between a high school essay (albeit from a grammar school) and a grudge list.
    Yes, we need to combat social inequality, but we need to do that with evidence before we start tampering with the basic way that our society operates – lest the least well off suffer most.

    You also make an impassioned attack on the well off, but your entire article is about getting people more well off.
    I would really suggest you reconsider your stance here and work out whether you want to destroy the upper echelons and the routes they took to get there, or have everyone else up there too.

  2. julian ruck says:

    To Kevin,

    Learning and the will to succeed has always and will continue to be, nurtured in the home, not the schools.

    The answer to social mobility is not necessarily political, although it can help.

    Sadly, failure perpetuates itself.

    The answer, the solution?

    I simply don’t know.


  3. swatantra says:

    The only way you are ever going to increase social mobility is by abolishing Public Schools like Eton Harrow and Wellington. And Prep Schools. And no Govt would have the b*lls to do that. And in their place bringing back local State Community Schools. The point being that social mobility is never going to happen in this hodge podge of Educational Systems and choices. It can only be done through meritocracy, and that means every child starts on the same starting line.

  4. Les Abbey says:

    Is the answer for the Labour Party at least, and maybe the government’s civil service, the use of positive discrimination. Of course the sharp-elbowed middle-class and the laid back aristocracy will complain.

  5. julian ruck says:

    To Swatantra,

    I was privately educated and see no reason to apologise for the fact. Surely, if I may posit a mere notion, the way to social mobility is to put state education standards on a par with their private sector counterparts?

    Job done as they say.

    Julian Ruck

  6. A Williams says:

    If private schools are closed in the UK won’t the rich and elite just send their children to the new private schools that will open abroad targeted at them and made up of the former staff from Eton and the rest. I am sure MPs on both front benches would send their offspring to such places.

  7. bob says:

    So you abolish private education, some things will happen. They will move overseas taking their pupils with them, one school in Liverpool is opening a branch in Abu Dhabi, due to their academic record.

    Pupils going back into the state system will overload it and so called LEA’s who at the moment have money from council tax that parents who pay into the private system also pay, will have to be used for education rather than pet projects. Parents who use private education pay TWICE through choice, many having two jobs to pay for an education that schools who have an expectation of failure for many under privileged students.

    Meritocracy, means the best will rise to the top, selective education is the only way to ensure a meritocracy in other words Grammar schools. I’m sure you agree Swatantra. What has happened to the concept of CHOICE in a democracy or do people want to like in a country like North Korea or the old East Germany, oh sorry they were and are socialist paradises with an even more elitist outlook.

  8. Ex Labour says:

    And what exactly do you define as ‘social mobility’ ? I’ve seen a number of wildly differing definitions and they all have one fundamental flaw. They assume that ALL people actually want to be upwardly mobile, when in fact most of the people that live in my working class underpriviledged area want nothing more than to lead an ordinary life. They want to have enough money for a house, a holiday, put food on the table and pint.

    I think you are wrong when you assume that everyone is somehow jealous of people who have money or are privately educated. Its just not true, its yet another canard of the left. I have friend on the dole and friends who are self made millionaires. We all still mix and socialise without any chips on our shoulders.

    As for this statement “And we could finally get serious about economic geography – using public money more equitably to disperse economic opportunity around the country, rather than deliberately congregating our political, economic and cultural centres in London and the South East of England, at the expense of everywhere else”

    What do you think the Blair government did ? It was exactly that. However for every £1 they spent pushing government departments and civil servants along with galleries, museums etc into the regions, £20 equivalent of private investment went into London.

    You cannot stop this happening unless you make it so attractive for investors and companies to choose a move to the regions they can not refuse. It would mean stopping petty minded greedy local authorities trying to get their “cut” out of everything. It would mean ignoring overbearing and restrictive planning and development laws and it would mean a rethink on transport and infrastructure. Is any government willing to take on a 25 year project when they know the next government will scrap it ?

  9. swatantra says:

    I went to the local Secondary Mod, but then transferred to a brand new Comp when 13 years old. Kevin is right. Nothing will be done about social mobility. We done that, and got the T Shirt.

  10. Danny says:

    “the way to social mobility is to put state education standards on a par with their private sector counterparts?”

    Ha! I thought naive idealism was a criticism reserved for the hard-left.

    To put state education standards on a par with private school is a pipe dream and if it was possible it would require huge amounts of additional funding from the taxpayer.

    If you think it’s fair that popping out of the uterus of a wealthy woman automatically means you are many hundreds of times more likely to be successful than someone born to poor parents, regardless of talent, intelligence, graft or ability, then I’ve been taught a different definition of the word fair to you.

    Our society is massively nepotistic, not meritocratic. The fact that total morons like David Cameron and George Osborne are our Prime Minister and Chancellor is proof of that. It’s why in the majority of big companies you find an infinite higher level of intelligence on the shop floor than the boardroom. It’s why our Parliament is dominated by the alumni of Eton. And it’s why we have such a pitiful pool of talent from which to select our political leaders. And it badly harms democracy.

  11. southern voter says:

    Even though I am centre left the grammar schools were engines of social mobility.
    I did not pass my eleven plus and was send to a secondary modern school in 1979.
    I was told at age 16 I will be able to find a manual job on the local trading estate by my teachers.I worked hard at my secondary modern and by 16 I had done well enough in my CSEs to gain a place at my local grammar school.From my local grammar school I gained a place at a Russell group university.Not bad for an eleven plus failure.
    At my secondary modern there was a poverty of ambition where even though I was doing well in my studies the teachers were perplexed why I wanted to go to university and not get a job on the trading estate.
    At grammar school I was told university is a natural progression and the teachers helped me to attain this.

  12. Ex Labour says:

    @ Swatantra

    So what are you saying ? Its institutions that hold people back ? Just because you went to a comp or secondary school you cant progress ?

    Once again most people except “Southern Voter” miss the point that progression and mobility are about the individual as much as the institutions and the social environment.

    If an individual is motivated it can take you much further than just having money and easy opportunities.

    But of course the left dont want to acknowledge that the vast majority are not motivated or perhaps dont want or need social advancement to fullfil their existence.

  13. bob says:

    Poverty of ambition for pupils by teachers, usually taking the easiest route in a lot of inner city schools by not challenging pupils to do better. They have for years written off children’s life chances by perceiving that they come from a failing run down area and will stay in that failing run down area. Time to pay educators by results not per head, allow parents to have the cost of their child’s by voucher which is redeemable by schools only and if they want to top that up that’s fine. Good schools should be allowed to expand, bad schools go to the wall. Allow market forces through parent choice to push education upwards not the dead hand of local politicians, local authorities and LEAs.

  14. Keith says:

    Social mobility was one of the many big let-downs of the New Labour years. For a party that claimed to want to create a meritocracy they failed abysmally.

    Brown and Blair claimed that they wanted opportunity for all and yet after 13 years, he left the country with social mobility worse than any previous government for over 50 years. And yet, few on the Left. least of all Milliband’s Labour party, seem to care that the life chances of young people brought up on council estates are doomed by virtue of their class. But then how many in the Labour shadow cabinet have experience of life on a working class council estate?

  15. Henrik says:

    A cynical observer might speculate that deep down, Labour has zero interest in social mobility as folk doing well for themselves tend to look elsewhere than Labour for political ideas which interest them and are relevant to them.

    Paradoxical, isn’t it, that the greatest ever achievement of Labour – the 1945 Education Act – was the single biggest driver ever of social mobility and a scant 20 years later, it was Labour which dismantled the machine which produced two generations of university-educated, upwardly mobile working-class folk.

    Comrades, look, the whole point of equality is equality of opportunity. Those with a social conscience will endeavour to level the playing field and give the dispossessed and underprivileged opportunities to excel and the financial structures to allow them to make things happen for themselves. The point is not equality of outcome; people are different, want different things, work differently and we can’t all be lawyers, trade union officials or SPADs.

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