Political

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 hunch that many people would associate improving “mobility” with getting more people to move, thinking it is a phrase about housing policies (and, humanity having the wondrous diversity that it does, probably a few people think it’s about transport options for less well off people). Certainly the evidence I’ve been able to find is limited but damning – focus group work showing that people associate social mobility with people of little talent suddenly become super-rich thanks to a TV (reality show) break.

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.

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.

The 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.

A version of this piece appears in the latest edition of Liberator.

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