Labour vs Conservatives on social mobility
This week the social mobility wars have started again – both parties think we need more of it but have different views on how to get there. But do any of their proposals address the real problems? Getting On Getting Ahead sets out Labour’s case for how Government might ensure more people have a chance of getting better jobs. The Conservatives have called it pointless spin, claiming that limited increases in social mobility mean Labour policy on poverty has failed.
The Labour position is not perfect – despite much helpful analysis the role that inequality has in tackling social mobility is not touched on. But the Conservative position is reactionary and dangerous, paving a return to the misery of the 80s for low-paid Britain.
Firstly, the Tory criticisms are inaccurate. The aims of Labour anti-poverty policies have been to improve the living standards of those who are worst off, and to this end no one can claim they have not had significant success. If Sure Start and Tax Credits didn’t exist life would be far worse for poor families. Althought these policies haven’t significantly increased the chances of children moving into middle class jobs, this doesn’t mean that they have failed at alleviating suffering and improving outcomes.
The reality is that by claiming that anti-poverty measures have failed, the Conservatives are covering themeselves for cutting them – while telling us they still care about the low-paid. Although the Tories “support Sure Start” they will cut outreach workers from disadvantaged areas. Working Tax Credits for couples with children have Conservative backing: at present the changes they outline would mean an increase for two-parent families, but there is no mention of what would happen for the other parents, disabled people and low-paid workers who currently benefit.
The Tories tell us that skills are a key to improving life chances, but plan to cut ‘Train to Gain’ a flagship Government programme providing improved access to training accross Britain’s workplaces, and demonstrating high levels of employer and learner satisfaction. Educational Maintenance Allowance is also branded a failure – despite clear evidence that it has increased the chances of young people staying on at school.
Other progressive policies are notable for their exclusion from Tory discussions. For example, despite being keen to criticise Government for recent confusion with student grant allocations, we do not know where the Conservatives stand on increasing grants for young people from poorer backgrounds. Similarly, there have yet to be any Conservative policy statements on enforcement of employment rights, and whether they support the new Fair Employment Enforcement Board.
But if anti-poverty measures are cut how will the Conservatives make themselves the party of improved opportunities? Their answer is to talk families. The Tories claim that “family has become less robust as an institution” and that social mobility will be promoted by preventing “family breakdown” – relationship support, tax breaks for all married couples and health visitors for middle class mums will mean that all children have a chance to achieve their potential? Not a chance. But as they will never beat Labour on social policy the Tories have recognised that focusing on families provides their best chance of disguising themselves as the friends of the worst off.
In fact, both parties need to remember that all of the evidence shows that addressing inequality is what counts. New research shows that UK is the 7th least equal OECD country, and that in recent years there has been very little change. Labour policies on poverty reduction and skills help – the Strategy Unit report is right to conclude that in contrast to the the 1980s we are now in a period where opportunities are not declining – but will not be enough on their own.
Really tackling social mobility means reducing the gap between rich and poor, which at present no one wants to acknowledge. But at least Labour policy will lead to limited improvements, rather than making things worse.