The Politics of Social Mobility
Today the Government published their New Opportunities white paper, on social mobility. As my colleague Nicola has pointed out in her excellent entry, social mobility and promoting greater equality are not alternatives – international evidence put together by the OECD clearly suggests that “although no consensus exists on this issue, there seems to be a relation between cross-section income inequality and intergenerational earnings mobility. To promote equality of opportunity might then require reducing current income inequality.”
In this post, I want to concentrate on the politics of social mobility. There is a risk that promoting mobility could undermine support for equality as an objective for our society; that is what seems to have happened in America.
But I do not think that is the Government’s plan. I want to look at how the Government has approached mobility by looking at some of the thinking Alan Milburn, the most interesting politician to take social mobility as his theme.
Alan Milburn is the most consistently intelligent of the politicians who have addressed the issue of social mobility, so it is good news that he is to chair the new panel on opening up the professions. In an article in the Sunday Times he argues for a “more upwardly mobile society”, as the way to give people “more chances to fulfill their aspirations and move themselves up in the world.”
Milburn first developed this theme in his ‘politics of aspiration’ campaign in the run-up to the last general election. He put forward three arguments that should appeal to all progressives:
- Milburn pays more attention than other politicians who have taken up mobility to the economic case for promoting social mobility. An economy will maximise growth if its resources – including people’s talents and energies – are applied where they will be most productive. Production will be lower where historical assumptions, discrimination and lack of opportunity prevent people from working in the jobs where they will be able to use their talents.
- Secondly, he emphasises that “the result of declining social mobility is entrenched inequality.”
- The first two points are also at the heart of the white paper. Alan Milburn is particularly interesting because he has also thought about social mobility in the context of the key task for leading political figures: how to construct a winning electoral coalition. Milburn emphasises the importance of social mobility as a mobilising idea in constructing a new progressive coalition, arguing that “a slowing down in social mobility is not just an issue for those at the very bottom of the social order. It matters to what Bill Clinton famously called the ‘forgotten middle class’. If the aspirations that most hard-working families have for themselves, their children and their communities are thwarted, then responsibility, innovation and enterprise are all undermined.”
What might a politics organised round mobility look like? Would it look like a British version of the ‘American Dream’ of second chances and limitless opportunity?
For many progressives and egalitarians, this could be a difficult proposition. Our instincts tend to favour a society with more mobility – as Ed Miliband has put it, social mobility “touches on our intuitions about the need for everyone to have a fair chance of success.” Almost as important, the existence of a large measure of social mobility would be the proof that equality of opportunity had become more of a reality.
But we are also aware that, in America, social mobility is often linked to an explicit repudiation of equality of outcome as a policy objective. It thus makes it possible for popular American idealism to be expressed in egalitarian terms, whilst underpinning an economic model that accepts inequality as a motor of growth.
If social mobility were to be adopted by the democratic Left and was politically successful, might that harm the prospects for achieving a less unequal society? In the USA, it seems that the strength of people’s belief in the reality of American social mobility is connected to their acceptance of inequality.
Mobility and equality
This does not seem to be Alan Milburn’s objective. In his politics of aspiration speech, he criticised meritocracy precisely because it “provides the equal opportunity only to become unequal.” He has called for a politics of “fairness in life chances”, that goes “beyond the focus of the traditional welfare state on correcting the outcomes of market-driven inequalities – such as low wages and family poverty – after the event.” His “new routes to social justice”, include skills, employability, education, childcare, empowerment of local communities, and the broadening of asset ownership.
This is, in many ways, a far more radical and far-reaching programme for achieving equality than simple reliance on taxes and benefits. Indeed, his criticism that “traditional income redistribution deals only with symptoms, not causes” suggests that what he is calling for is in addition to taxes and benefits, not instead of them. The white paper’s promise of more educational and health resources for low-income families can indeed be seen as “deep egalitarianism”.
If this is where the new politics of social mobility is going to take us, then progressives should not be worrying whether Milburn is using mobility to undermine support for equality, but whether he is trying to take on more than any Left or Centre-Left government has ever achieved before.
Equality, mobility and their opponents
So, British mobility does not have to imitate the American model; it can be about a more thorough version of equality, not a weak alternative to it.
But this will have been a wrong move if the Government thinks that social mobility is a useful theme because it is easier to get people to agree with it, and that middle England is less likely to say no to mobility than to re-distribution, investment in the welfare state and other traditional left policies.
A deep egalitarian version of social mobility will come up against the same political obstacles as fighting inequality in any other way. Social mobility that changes who gets the good things of life will be just as hateful to those who have them and are afraid of losing them as any other form of re-distribution.
Conservative commentators and media are happy to use social mobility as a stick to use against re-distributive policies, but large resources to promote mobility will be unpopular with the most influential voters precisely because they would be effective. If very large amounts start to be spent on schools in poorer areas we can expect (quite quickly) to hear accusations of discrimination against middle class children.
That is what seems to have already happened with the white paper. The Conservatives denounced the very appointment of Alan Milburn’s Commission as an “act of class war” and the Daily Mail is frothing about “Labour’s Class Law“.
In other words, not only is equality of outcome a great promoter of social mobility, the political and economic difficulties of achieving either are very similar. In both cases, any measure that will be effective will be expensive, offensive to the rich and powerful or (most likely) both.