Why do we struggle to discuss "social mobility"?

Whether it's class, culture or intergenerational fairness, Britain's political class struggle to talk about social mobility in a coherent or realistic manner. It's a problem we urgently need to fix.

Oli Powe
16 December 2013


Sir John Major had every reason to be shocked by the “affluent middle class” and their social dominance over “every single sphere of British influence” when he made his speech to the South Norfolk Conservative Association’s annual dinner just under a month ago. Given his humble background, the fact that social mobility was being lost had “outraged” him.

Major’s comments attracted much media interest, and rightly so. His views on social mobility deserve attention, not just because of his journey from school-leaver with three O-Levels to Prime Minister, but also because he led a political party seen by many as a symbol of outdated social hierarchies. For him, the essence of what the education system should deliver was very clear: to help children “out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them in the circumstances in which they were born”.

When he told those present that British children should be able to “fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them”, he evoked the most powerful message of modern conservatism, that of the importance and value of aspiration. It is a message that continues to inspire working-class Tories, much to the bemusement and displeasure of some of the more static elements of the left. Progressive commitments to social mobility and child poverty are still central to the more radical elements of conservative thought, as highlighted by the pressure group ‘Bright Blue’. An increasingly influential intellectual force on the right, Bright Blue’s core commitments focus on helping to “build a society in which no-one is left behind” with policies based on notions of “social justice” and a “fair start”.

Sadly, this philosophy does not appear to dominate the current thinking of the Conservative Party or its most prominent voices.  It certainly wasn’t evident in Boris Johnson’s recent speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, which was the epitome of crude elitism. Somewhere in his strange “cornflakes” metaphor there lies a rather dark and simplistic view of human value and the nature of inequality, a view that has seen Johnson come under attack from across the political spectrum. As Tim Stanley explained in The Telegraph, Johnson’s affection for IQ scores as evidence of the necessity for economic inequality reveals a “deterministic view of human ability that is neither fair nor accurate”. There needs to be a much more sophisticated and realistic view of social mobility and child poverty than Johnson’s ham-fisted commitment to the top 2% of “our species” with IQs over 130 who live in under-privileged circumstances.

Conservatives who subscribe to the Bright Blue way of thinking understand that genuine attempts to enact social justice are based upon optimistic politics, where state action should be seen not as an unwanted bureaucratic interference but as a catalyst for positive change. This positive change needs to help all those at the bottom end of society, not just those with high IQs and outstanding academic potential. Johnson’s ‘greed is good’ mantra is as outdated as it is destructive and completely ignores the fact that, in the UK, economic inequality is as much determined by birth as it is by intelligence or potential for the “boardroom greed” that he praised.

The nature of social justice is a perpetually contested concept. However, for a detailed description of what social justice isn’t, look no further than the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission’s ‘State of the Nation 2013’ report. It tells of a society where the “rate of child poverty is twice that of the best-performing countries in the world”. The lack of social mobility in this country is made agonisingly clear. The foreword reads as an ominous warning of what is to follow: “Being born poor often leads to a lifetime of poverty. Poor schools ease people into poor jobs. Disadvantage and advantage cascade down the generations”. Our attempts to end child poverty for good have failed and look set to continue failing, with the 2020 statutory goal likely to be missed “by as many as 2 million children”.

The commission, chaired by Alan Milburn, states that increasing social mobility has become a public policy “holy grail”. However, since the report has been published, a short period of soul-searching has given way to the routine dirt-slinging of British politics. It seems the current crop of policy-makers don’t share the same sense of outrage that Sir John Major and many others feel. Nevertheless, those who do care need to engage with the pessimistic conclusions the report reaches, even if that means addressing some uncomfortable home truths with regards to social hierarchies. If we are really going to get to grips with the elusive yet essential goals of increased social mobility and put an end to child poverty, we need to be brave enough to start using the c-word again.

The report describes Britain as a “deeply divided country” with some of the more conspicuous by-products of social and economic disparities continuing to shape the lives of young people. The lack of public policy attention given to “the other 50%” who obtain a vocational rather than higher education, the yearly 3,700 “missing” state school students who have Russell Group grades but are overlooked and the fact that the worst-performing students are poor children in ‘Middle England’ areas, are all hangovers of a class system that cosmopolitan liberalism wishes to ignore. Yet many of the conclusions the report reaches are very clear and damning, not least that “class is a bigger barrier than gender to getting a top job”.

What is more worrying however is the potential for the more nuanced and attitudinal class distinctions to become increasingly significant in an economic environment defined by job insecurity and youth unemployment. As Geoffrey Heptonstall explained on openDemocracy, “confidence is the key”. The fact that middle-class families are feeling the squeeze does not mean that they are in the same boat as their working-class counterparts. Money and skills will influence life-chances at an early age to some extent, but crucially Heptonstall explains how the educated middle-classes have “the resources to imagine how their careers and lives may be enriched by making the right choices”. Purveyors of the myth of classlessness deliberately obscure the subtleties of modern social divisions with outdated criteria. In reality, Heptonstall is correct to define confidence as the essential resource of the middle-classes, a resource that is neither a “commodity” nor “a genetic inheritance”, but a “nurtured advantage”.  

 For those wishing to enter a career in one of the professions, the current problems in the labour market have placed an unprecedented significance on unpaid internships and work experience. The report explains how the system of gaining work experience is akin to a “lottery”. However, it is not hard to imagine how some are better equipped to choose the winning numbers than others. 90% of the internships offered by professional firms are unpaid, yet the rewards are obvious, with those having completed an internship more than three times more likely to get a paid job than those who haven’t. The middle-classes are defined by their ability to evolve with changing contexts, and the nurtured advantages of confidence and informed decision-making allows them to navigate and understand these changes and irregularities.

It is no coincidence that social mobility and child poverty come under the scope of a single commission; these two central tenets of social justice are recognised as significantly interdependent. When we consider the lack of progress made in such essential areas of social policy during periods of extended growth it becomes clear just how damaging an unbalanced recovery will be for future generations. Serious policy rethinks are needed to prevent increasing inequalities and deepening class barriers.

The report advocates a public policy approach that will “target and benefit a wider cohort”. The current living standards squeeze, caused by stagnating and now falling real wages, must be addressed. With living costs rising and the national minimum wage falling in real terms, work is no longer a guaranteed cure for poverty. The commission urges employers to take the burden off the taxpayer and increase wages in order to close the price-earnings gap, but more importantly it advocates the need for the minimum wage to be raised to help stop the worrying trend of in-work poverty.

Intergenerational inequality is another issue that policy makers need to approach from an honest rather than tactical perspective. Critics of the current Government have rightly pointed to the regressive nature of fiscal tightening and the pressure this is placing on the bottom 20% of society. However, more must be done to ensure wealthy pensioners share the burden, as unappetising as that may be for the mainstream parties. The report explains that whilst pensioners have been protected from the consolidation process, families with children, a group that makes up less than a third of working-age families, have had to bear “half the cost of tax and benefit changes and almost two-thirds of spending cuts”. Whilst favouring pensioners over younger generations can be attributed to a mixture of ‘grey vote’ calculations and a moral commitment to those who have already given much to society, it is a position that is no longer sustainable. The future of social mobility and child poverty is at stake and it requires a shift in priorities.

Improved social mobility and an end to child poverty need to be genuine public policy ‘holy grails’ in Westminster, and some brave and interventionist policy decisions are required in order to deliver them. The State of the Nation report places the onus not just on the Government, but the professions and the top universities to play their role in ensuring the aspirational drive of the underprivileged can be realised. However, in order to achieve real change we must be honest enough to accept the intergenerational and class inequalities the report makes so clear. We must dismiss the myth of classlessness for now so that we might achieve it in the future.

We will have to see whether a One-Nation Labour Party will have the power let alone the stomach for such an essential job. However, I fear the fate of future generations may depend on the philosophical differences of the right. It is up to the radical thinking of groups such as Bright Blue to ensure efforts to improve social mobility and tackle child poverty aren’t undermined by over-romanticised and imprecise returns to Thatcherism.

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