Who’s afraid to define social mobility?
Today Gordon Brown committed Labour to increasing social mobility in the UK. He is not alone, with politicians from accross the specturm increasingly keen to commit to a socially mobile Britain. But are any of them willing to define how far their policy prescriptions would actually take us? And what are their visions for how wealth would be distributed in a perfectly socially mobile society?
In 2004 Tony Blair pledged that the ‘opportunity society’ was going to be the cornerstone of this third term, enabled by a welfare state offering high quality services and choice.
More recently the Conservatives have started to get in on the act. David Willets maintains that an incoming Conservative Government would be committed to improving social mobility through developing more academies, and the party are keen to inform us that Britain has the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world.
For the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg has launched a ‘Social Mobility Commission’, considering what policy changes could better enable people from all backgrounds to achieve their potential.
But to date none of the parties have told us how far towards social mobility they believe their policies would take us. Do they have a vision of the perfectly socially mobile society? What would the gap be between rich and poor? How much could actually be achieved if we retain existing, ever increasing, income inequalities?
There is plenty evidence providing the answer, perhaps none more authoritative than a recent study of the experiences of children in 16 developed nations which concisely concluded that more inequality means less social mobility. The DWP’s recent research concurs, finding that:
There is some debate about the importance of social mobility and its relationship with inequality and economic growth. On the one hand, high levels of inequality might be thought to constrain the potential for movement within the social hierarchy…On the other, high levels of inequality and mobility might be thought to be good bedfellows…The evidence appears to favour the former argument, with those countries with higher levels of mobility also having lower inequality. There is also some evidence of causal linkages between inequality and low levels of mobility.
A cross-party concensus on the importance of social mobility is impressive. However it remains to be seen if any politicians will be brave enough to challenge the real causes of its decline.