Social mobility filtered through the lens of an individualistic ‘meritocracy’ is not good enough

Posted: 01/10/09

Beware of concepts that seem, superficially, to have political endorsement from across the political spectrum. There will invariably be something about that concept that is slippery, hard to pin down and, consequentially open to misinterpretation.

A few years ago, the cry went up for ‘community'. The word become the subject of endless seminars and think-tank reports, was talked about with erudition by Etzioni and Puttnam, was deemed to be the Holy Grail for society, and specifically, and as an objective behind various regeneration schemes (‘New Deal for Communities'). And then it vanished!

Where, today, is the rigorous new thinking, the big money and the government programmes geared towards community building? Nowhere. Primarily because, the closer we got, the less we could define a common meaning, still less, a shared approach to achieving it. Did we want communities of people ‘like us', familiar, with a shared culture and history? Did we mean something that bound together those with very different cultures, values and lifestyles? . Did we want more mobility? Or less? Did we not, perhaps, want women, the traditional nurturers of family and neighbourhood, back in the home to carry on that now neglected task?

Today, a critique of the limited social mobility in modern Britain features heavily in Conservative Party speeches and press releases, whilst also being the subject of a Government White Paper and the report of a Task Force chaired by Alan Milburn. Can a social analysis which, almost by definition, demands for its achievemnt fundamental social change, truly command a consensus of support across right and left? Or do we mean different things by it?

I believe that we do, indeed, mean very different things and we should be much clearer about both our analysis and our prescription.

All sides might be able to agree on some of the facts of the case. As Alan Milburn's Task Force revealed, entry into the professions is, if anything, even more reflective of parental background, income and educational privilege than was the case forty years ago. Three in four judges and one in every two senior civil servants were educated privately - an over-representation of power (and no doubt wealth) towards a minority that hideously distorts our society. Alan Milburn makes many sound, practical suggestions as to how to ensure that access into the professions is made easier for tomorrow's applicants who have not travelled down that gilded path.

The difference between a Conservative and (what should be) Labour's approach to social mobility, however, is something far more fundamental. Cameron's Conservatives (ironically, in this context, stuffed with Old Etonians at the highest level) may join in the criticism of a society frozen in same structure of privilege as it was half a century ago, but they are ideologically opposed to anything which would bring about fundamental change.

Social mobility filtered though the lens of individualistic ‘meritocracy' might offer some people opportunities to make a breakthrough, but it will change little in itself. That is why voucher schemes and ‘Pupil passports', as favoured by the Conservatives in 2005, are so damaging. If anything, they are counter-productive, entrenching even deeper disadvantage in the schools, families or neighbourhoods left behind. Social polarisation is, if anything, even more dangerous than straightforward deprivation, as extensive research into the damage done by inequality demonstrates. Often forgotten is the fact that Michael Young's famous book about meritocracy was a dystopia - a warning about the dangers of ignoring deeper social and economic trends.

Nor can we open up opportunities - and break the link between parental background and life chances - on thin air. Those lining up to call for ‘savage' cuts in public spending should be challenged at every turn and made to justify what cuts they propose and what impact they would have. By all means strive to economise, to work more smartly and efficiently, but be under no illusions - a shrunken state means less for the least privileged, as it has always done.

The investment that has been cascaded into nursery education, Children's Centres and Early intervention, schools, extended school provision, Educational Maintenance Allowance and more has laid down foundations for changes which take a generation or more to reveal themselves. The narrow and selective model of social mobility favoured by the right favours, as always, the few and not the many. Beneath the veneer of concern lies a hard-faced reality than will leave Britain a more polarised society than before.