By Colm Flanagan.
Everyone agrees that social mobility is ‘a good thing’ – last year all three party leaders gave speeches on the topic, and it appears to be at the heart of what Cameron’s ‘strivers’ are about. Conventional wisdom would tell you it is the new centre ground, or perhaps just the old centre ground that never went away, and if we don’t make social mobility ours, and win the argument on it, we’re doomed to fail.
But unlike other issues which there is cross-party consensus on, such as universal access to contraceptives, and free tap-water in restaurants, it is not clear that everyone means the same thing when they talk about social mobility, and there is a risk that it could mean something almost exactly opposite to what the Labour Party should be trying to achieve.
At its very worst, pursuing social mobility means you accept that there are some fulfilling, stimulating, well-remunerated jobs, with reasonable hours which scarcely impede family life, are physically undemanding and give good pensions – doctors, say. On the other hand there are jobs which are undesirable in every single possible way – pay, conditions, status, the lot – and that’s just the way it is.
All social mobility is in this universe is ensuring that a higher proportion of the sons and daughters of people in category B get jobs in category A, without ever addressing the issue that jobs like those in category B exist at all. Proponents of this approach rarely acknowledge that this will invariably mean consigning the children of parents in category A to jobs in category B, as it is never advocated that more high quality jobs are created, so some displacement of accountants’ children to the scrapheap must be necessary if social mobility is to take place. Rarely too, is it articulated that all the best ways of making a living are not actually salaried jobs obtained through good qualifications and a string of internships, but the best job is to simply own stuff which produces an income, whether that be a trust fund or property – most of the benefits of working with none of the downsides.
No, in this world of social mobility, the sum of human happiness is not increased by one jot, but people are happier with the system, because they feel now success has been earned and deserved, rather than inherited, and, in theory, it works better, because category A jobs are more important and need people of higher calibre to perform them.
In fact, before we waste a second on social mobility, we should be doing two things. First, we should be looking at the politically easy, but technically difficult question of how we can create more category A jobs. This was Ed Miliband’s focus in the second half of his speech on social mobility to the Sutton Trust last year, where he focused on Britain’s need to create career paths for the 50% of young adults who don’t go to university.
But it also means making the politically difficult, but technically easier decision, of spreading the pros and cons of jobs more evenly, so we no longer live in a two track society. Once this happens, it will still be important to have social mobility policies in place, because nobody should be pushed into becoming a lawyer if they would get a lot more satisfaction from being a mechanic, or a dinner lady if they would prefer to be an optician, but it wouldn’t be such an urgent issue – it would be a matter of individual preference rather than a matter of social justice.
I cannot express strongly enough how inconsequential social mobility is while our economy is so deeply unfair in so many other ways. The entire debate about social mobility looks like a Tory game of musical chairs, a hollow Ponzi scheme where the hope of your children bagging one of the glittering prizes means you put up with a system which keeps you poor.
If you want to continue to pursue social mobility and hold it dear as an aim, fine, don’t let me stop you. Make ability the sole barrier of entry for every profession, instead of the shaky system of guilds, contacts and luck which exists today. Just don’t coming crying to me when your children weren’t bright enough to make it in your ruthlessly meritocratic society and their lives are miserable.
Colm Flanagan is the Young Fabians’ Political Education Officer.
This is one of several views that will be debated at the Social Mobility roundtable:
Young Fabians Social Mobility Roundtable with Rt Hon. Alan Miliburn, former Labour Cabinet Minister & Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty.
The Young Fabians are delighted to announce an exclusive opportunity to partake in a roundtable discussion on social mobility with the Rt Hon Alan Milburn, who currently serves as the Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty. This is a fantastic opportunity for you to have your say on this crucial issue and help inform the debate on how we ensure the next generation can do better than the last. The event will take place in Parliament on Tuesday 26th March between 6:45pm-8:15pm.
We have 20 spots available for this roundtable (10 male & 10 female), so if you are interested in partaking, please email the Young Fabians Networks Officer Rayhan Haque at firstname.lastname@example.org. In your email, please can you state in no more than 150 words, what social mobility means to you and one idea that you think will make a big difference to creating a more socially mobile society.