Social Mobility is Not Allowed

John Rentoul

nick clegg social mobility  300x225 Social Mobility is Not AllowedIf I ever revive the  Banned List – and I am on the cusp – one of the first phrases to go on it will be social mobility. Nick Clegg last week made a speech and published a document on the subject. Faisal Islam at Channel 4 News summed up the Government’s new “strategy” thus:

1. Rename a commission; 2. Publish indicators; 3. Make Clegg chair of a ministerial committee.

I didn’t know there was a Child Poverty Commission, but now it will be called the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. At least it will be chaired by Alan Milburn, who knows what he is doing.

But, as Charlie Beckett at the LSE pointed out,

Social mobility is now a meaningless phrase, or rather, it has a different meaning according to your political position and vision. And this matters because your definition of the language dictates your policy, too.

Phil Collins in The Times last Friday (pay wall) captured the central problem brilliantly:

What Gore Vidal said about friendship is true of social mobility: “It is not enough that you should succeed. Others must fail.” Easy social mobility, room-at-the-top social mobility, is over. Welcome to the hardcore version, a zero-sum game in which my rise requires your fall. In the competition for scarce resources, for the best school places, the best jobs and the best houses, my ascent threatens your monopoly of advantage. Whenever somebody says sweetly that they are just doing their best for their own children, remember that means they are out to stop yours.

He is right in principle, but I am not sure that “easy” social mobility is completely over. What was interesting about Deborah Mattinson’s finding that 71 per cent of people now describe themselves as middle class is that it represents a social revolution since the 1980s, when only 27 per cent were willing to apply this label to themselves. A lot of that shift is linguistic and cultural rather than purely socio-economic, and I can’t see why the shift away from manual and routine labour shouldn’t continue.

But social mobility should go on the Banned List because it means anything or nothing. The basic idea is the American one, that it shouldn’t matter how humble your origins, you can “get to the top”. But numbers at the top are by definition are limited. And it is already perfectly possible to make that journey in this country, as Alan Milburn, David Blunkett and Alan Johnson all demonstrated. All of them were senior Cabinet ministers and any of them could have been prime minister if the chips had fallen slightly differently.

What many people mean by the phrase, however, is greater equality. Which is a phrase that means something specific and difficult. Let’s use that instead.

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  • greggf

    If “getting to the top” is a more definitive term for social mobility, which “top” is the one that its instigators have in mind?
    You seem to say prime minister, I’ve also seen top judges, or the “professions” mentioned as the standard by which success may be measured.
    This is the problem; there is always an inherent circumstantial bias in divining social policy that rarely escapes political conotations.

  • barabu

    The more democratic a society is the more equal it is because people would act in their own interest. If we had a system where people have a way of influencing decisions the banks would not be paying ridiculous bonuses after being bailed out, people would never allow university charges of £9k and privatising any part of the NHS would be totally unthinkable. These are just current examples, but that a democratic society would be more equal is just blindingly obvious. The problem we have is an effective democracy depends on an honest media which is not promoting the interests of the powerful and treating politics like a horse race.

  • mightymark

    Sorry but still don’t get it. People acting in their own interst equals equality? – erm ..,don’t think so – surely not if they have unequal abilities, foresightedness, finances etc?

    As for you examples again I just don’t get it. What you say about the bankers might apply to banks bailed out but not to those that are not – so they would presumably continue to generate inequality by paying huge bonuses (validly on your reasoning, because they were not bailed out). In fact all your examples are public sector whereas most inequality is probably private sector generated by people acting in their own interests!

    I agree privatising the NHS is a wrong policy – no Goverment of which I was a member would adopt it, however I am not sure it is necessarily inegaltiarian. There are I think social democracies that are more egalitarian and which make better welfare provision than the UK where the state does not own hospitals. They are usually third sector owned.

    Finally I notice you don’t address my point that a considrable part of the democratic debate is about how much equality we want which suggests that the level of material equality/inequality can not itself be inimical to democracy as such. Generally I think you are applying faulty logic to this question.

  • greggf

    “It’s notable that the three politicians….”
    And were they not the product of grammar schools?

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