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