Social mobility: new reporting coming but what is the real objective?

Tuesday sees the launch by Nick Clegg of a social mobility strategy for the government, including a new ‘report card’ to track the government’s progess.

The phrase “social mobility” is one I still don’t like. It is too much like that other inside-politics phrase “street furniture”. Councillors and council officers talk about street furniture works, improvements, strategies, investments and proposals with abandon but you never hear someone say, “I’ve just moved into my new flat and the local street furniture is lovely”. Street furniture matters, but falling into the habit of using an uncommon piece of jargon hinders understanding, explanation and campaigning.

“Social mobility” has the same problem. “I’m really proud of my daughter’s social mobility” isn’t a phrase that graces many coffee gossip sessions or Christmas round-robin letters. What’s worse, what research there is (from MORI a few years back) into how people think of the phrase is that not only is it largely not understood in the wider world, but when it is people frequently view “social mobility” as a bad thing because they associate it with situations such as an under-talented celebrity earns huge sums and moving into a posh mansion.

Social mobility goes both ways

A bench, with leavesWhat’s even worse is that street furniture is at least non-competitive. You can improve your street furniture without having to damage someone else’s. There’s no fixed supply of benches that requires you to steal benches from somone else’s high street to improve your own. Replacing broken paving stones by your bus stop doesn’t require leaving another bus stop denuded of paving.

But social mobility – that is mobility down as well as up. That’s rarely mentioned in discussions about social mobility but is an essential part of it.

So there’s a bucket load of caveats to put on my welcoming the idea of having a social mobility score card. Even with them all, it’s certainly a good concept. That’s because social mobility is not the sort of issue which usually gets much direct media attention or generates much direct political pressure and so, as is the way with such issues, the attention and priorities of politicians keep on getting dragged away to those topics that do.

The importance of Alan Milburn

Staking the government’s reputation in part on regularly published evaluations means that in future there will be at least some of that attention and pressure. Each time the new figures come out, it will be a trigger for media and Parliamentary attention – which, if the figures show things moving in the wrong direction, will be critical. That’s all the more so in the case of social mobility given the appointment of the former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Milburn last year as the government advisor on social mobility. The staffing support he is receiving makes the role much more than one of Gordon Brown’s ‘GOAT’ appointments and his independence will give his comments real bite.

Social mobility is an important personal issue for Nick Clegg. As Stephen previously put it on this site:

It was he who made much of the statistic that Lib Dem audiences heard ad infinitum during his leadership bid and beyond that “a child born in a poor neighbourhood in Sheffield where I’m an MP will die on average 14 years before a child born in a wealthier area”. And one of Nick’s first acts as Lib Dem leader was to establish a commission to examine social mobility, chaired by chief executive of Barnardo’s Martin Narey. Social mobility is also a natural fit with Nick’s cabinet committee responsibilities, as he chairs the cabinet committee on domestic affairs…

If the Lib Dems are to prove we have made a difference to the country – that we have made the UK fairer as a direct consequence of our involvement in the Coalition – then social mobility is definitely the right issue for Nick Clegg to adopt and make his own in the next few years.

An “astonishing” achievement by Nick Clegg

Much more recently, Matthew D’Ancona has expressed a similar view to Stephen’s:

All governments say they are in favour of “social mobility” and issue appropriate platitudes. But this one seems to mean business, thanks in large part to the fire in Clegg’s belly. The ministerial committee exploring the issue has come to be recognised as a forum where important decisions are taken… the policies and governing strategy that are being formulated under this rubric will be deeply controversial, and (in Clegg’s eyes, at any rate) they are meant to be…

It remains astonishing that Clegg has persuaded a Conservative-dominated Government to undertake this project. Labour MPs whisper their congratulations to Lib Dem ministers, and express justified amazement that a Coalition led by products of Eton, Westminster and St Paul’s has embarked on this social crusade.

It is indeed a major achievement, but as I put it earlier this year in a piece on social mobility for Liberator:

The phrase leaves untouched the core question of how bothered – or not – we are about overall levels of inequality. A highly mobile and high unequal society is possible to imagine, and is one that would sit comfortably with the urgings of right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman. It was Friedman who, at the start of his famous TV series, justified inequality as long as it was accompanied by high social mobility.

Talking of social mobility has some tactical uses when in coalition with the Conservatives, given this resulting common ground. But a highly socially mobile, Friedman-style society is not a Liberal Democrat one.

There is a different vision, whether in the flavour of The Spirit Level or of Reinventing the State, where greater equality is valued for the benefits it brings to all of society, rich and poor alike.

Unless the party has a clear view – and, joy of joys, one it can now actually turn into government policy – on the importance of overall levels of equality, frequent talk of “social mobility” masks important questions that need answering. Is social mobility the end in itself or just a means to the end? And if it is only one of the means to a different end, why concentrate on just that one means?

What’s the real aim?

A more equal society is popular with the public, and even more so with Liberal Democrat activists. But if that’s real objective then why not talk about it?

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8 Comments

  • It’s clear that something needs to be done about this – and much of what’s been reported looks pretty good.

    I have to say, though, on the basis of some of the noises around this project, I am very worried that we are going to get another one of those control-freakish target-driven schemes which, in the end, increase bureaucracy more than achieving the actual goal, and that’s before any unintended consequences kick in. Weren’t we going to get rid of this kind of thing?

  • To actually achieve social mobility – you actually need a number of things.
    Firstly the State would have to take over the parenting role of a failing parent or parents, in other words a nanny state. Very few people want this – its politically impossible so it won’t happen. Only under communism has there every truly been social mobility. That alone means that talk of social mobility is nothing but hot air.
    Secondly we would also need a really brilliant free state education system which is so good that most people with means opt to use to educate their children in the state system rather than privately. Our political class tend educate their children privately. Often this group of children creates much of the future political class, and they have grown up isolated in their own social group – a self fulfilling barrier to social mixing and mobility. There is no sign of a big trend towards state education, even when many people lost their jobs.
    Thirdly we would need higher taxation, because how else will wealthy but less able people experience downwards mobility? Specifically we would need more inheritance tax and probably some kind of land tax. Higher taxes are not generally a vote winning strategy.
    In summary it doesn’t matter how much fire Clegg has in his belly – Britain is controlled by vested interests and will continue to experience the limited social mobility that has existed since the middle of the last century, unless some epic external event on the scale of another world war happens.

  • I made some comments on an earlier piece and think social mobility is all well and good but surely Clegg can’t hope to even win this given that the number of jobless far exceeds jobs and the welfare state has been trashed by Ian Duncan-Smith.

    There’s got to be joined-up government on these things and social mobility as an isolated strategy doesn’t work particularly if the treasury and DWP don’t give a damn.

  • ‘but when it is people frequently view “social mobility” as a bad thing because they associate it with situations such as an under-talented celebrity earns huge sums and moving into a posh mansion.’

    Problem though Mark is that that is a pretty selective example. Social mobility in the past few years has tended to be little more than house price inflation. Great if you happen to own inflating property (largely the boomer generation) but not so good if you are the person who has to foot the bill. People view social mobility as bad because in reality it has meant being priced out of housing.

    This Coalition has given pensioners a gold-plated earnings link, fuel payments, bus passes, prescription, eye-tests and TV licenses whilst telling the young that they must pay 9%+ over £21k (at today’s prices) to go to university, that they will have to work probably to 70 and giving all the protection that the big society affords. Social mobility has, to my mind, become code for boomer preferencing.

    If Clegg can persuade the tory shires to accept house-building and reduced houseprices then I will shake his hand and apologise. Bluntly I won’t be holding my breath.

  • @Duncan

    You make a very good point.

    I remember a time when Vince was talking about doing something about empty second homes in places like Cornwall and Dorset because it was a scandal that the young in those areas were completely priced out of the market.

  • @ Alistair
    The points you have made I agree with.

    I think that ‘Social Mobility’ for want of better term, is a ‘capped’ situation, and to use another cliched term, offers some mobility to the point that people reach a ‘glass ceiling’.

    I have made this point in the forum, that it is all well and good for Politicians of whatever persuasion to use the term, but in reality it is difficult for people to aspire, when it can be viewed that many at the top live in worlds apart. The Civil Service is elitest, and still very much considered ‘Jobs for the boys’, right school tie, connections etc. All parties have SPADS, usually Westminster/Eton/OxBridge educated, selection lists of ‘desired’ candidates, or ‘chosen ones’ who are parachuted into constituencies, so while ‘Social Mobility’ is good to be seen on the agenda, it should be read with the caveat ‘…..Ah, but not too Socially Mobile….’

  • John Fraser 5th Apr '11 - 1:35pm

    Clegg rarely if ever mentions greater equality in his speeches . that is becuase he is in favour of the current equalities but just wants to give the deserving few a chance to improve their lot . This is a very extreme hearless and brutal philiophy which would put him very much on the Ruplican right. . Look at the way he has enthusiastically taken on the cuts that effect the unemployed and disabled .
    Look at the way he wants to improve things for poor kids at school but seems happy to let them come home to a slum. This terminology is very deliberate very pervese and very threatening for the poor ..yet too many Lib dems just sity on their hands and ignore the fact that the leadership of their party has been taken over by the economically uncompromisingly far right. Can anyone please explian why ?

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