The problem with social mobility

Nick Clegg often talks about social mobility, but is it the right focus for the party’s social efforts?

The day after he was elected Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg set up a commission to look at social mobility in the UK. In the two years since then, he has regularly returned to the topic, and it has become a priority of his for party and then government policy-making, alongside making frequent appearances in speeches, slogans and soundbites from leading party figures.

Yet it is a phrase that risks becoming over-used, for it fails to communicate effectively what makes us Liberal Democrats as opposed to members of another party and also risks being an excuse to avoid addressing some major issues of policy and philosophy.

One clue as to the phrase’s limitations in explaining to the public what the Liberal Democrats are about is that this is not the language of ordinary votes. “Social mobility” certainly is a phrase that many in policy-making and government circles use but, rather like “street furniture”, despite being popular in such circles it is almost never used by people outside such circles. You don’t get many people talking about how great the “street furniture” is near the flat they have just moved to nor about their hopes for the future “social mobility” of their children or grandchildren.

It would be intriguing to see quite what most people actually think the phrase means. I have a strong hunch that many people would associate improving “mobility” with getting more people to move, thinking it is just a phrase about housing policies. But regardless, when politicians lapse into vocabulary that is not found on the doorstep, it is normally time for the politicians to reach for a new vocabulary if they want to use phrases that have the power of explanation and persuasion.

The phrase also has the problem that mobility is not a one-way process – it means people moving down just as it also means people moving up. Talking up how we want people to move down is not an obvious route to political success.

But even aside from these messaging problems, 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?

Both this policy and this messaging challenge were confronted by the party under Paddy Ashdown’s time as leader. Take this from the 1992 manifesto:

Liberal Democrats put people first. We aim to create a society in which all men and women can realise their full potential and shape their own successes. We believe that if we could liberate this wealth of talent we would transform our economy and create a shared society of which we should all be proud. Liberal Democrats know that this cannot be achieved without fundamental reform.

Paddy AshdownThe messaging is not perfect, and during Paddy’s time as leader the party – in typical Paddy fashion – went through a whirlwind of different formulations, all of which were presented as being the vital message and none of which lasted for very long. “Unlocking potential” was another such phrase, as in Paddy’s book Beyond Westminster when he talked of the importance of education’s “capacity to unlock individual potential”.

These different formulations were pithy but there were still not doorstep vernacular. Yet they worked better than “social mobility” for they put the idea in a wider, more liberal, context. It’s not that the party was dead keen on seeing more people move down the social scale, but rather on seeing more people have the chance to escape any disadvantages of the situation they were born into.

So the party can take half a leaf out of Paddy’s book in 2011. A belief in “Social mobility” is only one part of what makes us liberals and we need to debate and decide on how important overall levels of equality are. And regardless of the outcome of that, the phrase should be consigned to occasional short-hand rather than making it a staple of speeches and sound bites.

This piece appears in the latest edition of Liberator.

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17 Comments

  • The phrase also has the problem that mobility is not a one-way process – it means people moving down just as it also means people moving up. Talking up how we want people to move down is not an obvious route to political success.

    You don’t quite define what you mean by social mobility here – but intergenerational comparisons are a pretty standard measure. In which case, there are no people moving up or down, but the success of an individual is dictated to a greater or lesser degree by the success of their parents. Also, movement “down” in income percentile terms does not necessarily indicate a lower income in real terms: only relative to the national median.

    Lowering inequality and increasing social mobility are both desirable goals. It’s how you choose to do it that counts. For my money: increasing opportunities for gifted pupils in state education (either with add-on programmes in the comprehensive system or increasing the number of grammar schools), robust regulation of high pay in the public and private sector and a minimum wage on all internship programmes to prevent bias towards candidates that can support themselves for 6 months.

  • Apologies for (paragraph 1) quote fail in above post.

  • Meanwhile, in other news, constituents are surprised to see that Nick Clegg has repainted his constiuency house.

  • Well, if you want to get across the message that the Lib Dems want to ‘help people get on’, I’d suggest it might be a start if your MPs stopped waving through tuition-fee treblings, EMA cuts, VAT rises, NHS privatisations, ‘free’ schools, tax cuts for the banks and a local government settlement that includes giving the biggest cuts to Liverpool and increeases to Dorset and Surrey.

    The Spirit Level conclusively proves that the most socially-mobile societies are the most equal – no ifs, no buts. Clegg can talk all the fluff he wants about his ‘pupil premium’ sham, but the fact is, he’s the head cheerleader for an economic orthodoxy which will inevitably see the gap between rich and poor widen further, and thus make social mobility far worse.

  • Just a note on the EMA’s. Altough I am sure some students use this money sensibly I know for a fact that very many do not! I am aware of several teenagers where I am who get this money and boast about how it helps fund their weekends, usually with alcohol but also weed. I have had conversations with them and it is according to them commonplace.

    People can bury their heads if they like when defending this stupid Labour policy but if you actually go out and get the facts you will find that a very big percentage of the EMA monies dished out ends up behind a bar or in a dealers hands, FACT!

    Typical Labour, they saw the need to encourage students to stay in school and threw money at it thinking it would be enough.

  • “Good policies aimed at increasing social mobility such as investment in early learning and the pupil premium are undermined by other policies like scrapping EMA and implementing policies like Free Schools and Academies of which the Middle classes are more likely to take advantage of, since they benefited from their education and will generally be more committed towards it for their children.”

    The answer, therefore, is to go for schools that foster an appreciation of all that education has to offer and ensure that entry to it is based on ability.

    In other words, Grammar Schools.

  • “Just a note on the EMA’s. Altough I am sure some students use this money sensibly I know for a fact that very many do not! I am aware of several teenagers where I am who get this money and boast about how it helps fund their weekends, usually with alcohol but also weed. I have had conversations with them and it is according to them commonplace.

    People can bury their heads if they like when defending this stupid Labour policy but if you actually go out and get the facts you will find that a very big percentage of the EMA monies dished out ends up behind a bar or in a dealers hands, FACT”

    Firstly, the way the government has gone about abolishing it is arguably illegal, and Michael Gove may have yet another court-inflicted defeat to come (when Cameron and Gove explicitly promised before the election that they’d keep EMA, they were effectively making a verbal contract with people who were about to start sixth form; they’re now about to break their half of the contract by pulling EMA halfway through people’s courses). Secondly, EMA is extremely cost-efficient – the £400m it costs a year is a fraction of the amount of money the government would’ve had to pay out in benefits to the estimated number of people who would’ve not gone to sixth form without EMA – it’s yet another example of this incompetent government reducing everything to a short-term cost without thinking through the longterm consequences (see the forest sell-off that would’ve cost money; also tuition fees hike which will cost money upfront due to the government underestimating how many unis would charge the full £9000). Thirdly, you may be able to find SOME EMA claimants who don’t really need it, just like you can find some “benefit scroungers” who, really, could find a job if they tried – I wouldn’t’ve thought it’s a very liberal attitude to completely swipe away something from the majority that are in need just to punish the minority who are abusing the system.

  • Ed The Snapper 25th Feb '11 - 7:39am

    If the LibDems want to increase social mobility then a good place to start is looking at the horrendous cost of getting into the professions. These costs are just one way of maintaining the professions as the domain of the well-off. The high-cost of courses such as LPC plus the need to work for free or cheap as an intern makes it hard for the poor to enter the professions. Then the system of interviews and selection by existing members of the profession is used to screen out working-class candidates who have borrowed or scraped together enough money to get through courses like LPC. I cannot see our current politicians doing much about this, though. Many of them are lawyers or doctors and they will want to ensure that their own children get first dibs on following in their footsteps.

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