Social mobility: new reporting coming but what is the real objective?

Tuesday sees the launch by Nick Clegg of a social mobility strategy for the government, including a new ‘report card’ to track the government’s progress.

The phrase “social mobility” is one I still don’t like. It is too much like that other inside-politics phrase “street furniture”. Councillors and council officers talk about street furniture works, improvements, strategies, investments and proposals with abandon but you never hear someone say, “I’ve just moved into my new flat and the local street furniture is lovely”. Street furniture matters, but falling into the habit of using an uncommon piece of jargon hinders understanding, explanation and campaigning.

“Social mobility” has the same problem. “I’m really proud of my daughter’s social mobility” isn’t a phrase that graces many coffee gossip sessions or Christmas round-robin letters. What’s worse, what research there is (from MORI a few years back) into how people think of the phrase is that not only is it largely not understood in the wider world, but when it is people frequently view “social mobility” as a bad thing because they associate it with situations such as an under-talented celebrity earns huge sums and moving into a posh mansion.

Social mobility goes both ways

What’s even worse is that street furniture is at least non-competitive. You can improve your street furniture without having to damage someone else’s. There’s no fixed supply of benches that requires you to steal benches from someone else’s high street to improve your own. Replacing broken paving stones by your bus stop doesn’t require leaving another bus stop denuded of paving.

But social mobility – that is mobility down as well as up. That’s rarely mentioned in discussions about social mobility but is an essential part of it.

So there’s a bucket load of caveats to put on my welcoming the idea of having a social mobility score card. Even with them all, it’s certainly a good concept. That’s because social mobility is not the sort of issue which usually gets much direct media attention or generates much direct political pressure and so, as is the way with such issues, the attention and priorities of politicians keep on getting dragged away to those topics that do.

The importance of Alan Milburn

Staking the government’s reputation in part on regularly published evaluations means that in future there will be at least some of that attention and pressure. Each time the new figures come out, it will be a trigger for media and Parliamentary attention – which, if the figures show things moving in the wrong direction, will be critical. That’s all the more so in the case of social mobility given the appointment of the former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Milburn last year as the government advisor on social mobility. The staffing support he is receiving makes the role much more than one of Gordon Brown’s ‘GOAT’ appointments and his independence will give his comments real bite.

Social mobility is an important personal issue for Nick Clegg. As Stephen previously put it on Lib Dem Voice:

It was he who made much of the statistic that Lib Dem audiences heard ad infinitum during his leadership bid and beyond that “a child born in a poor neighbourhood in Sheffield where I’m an MP will die on average 14 years before a child born in a wealthier area”. And one of Nick’s first acts as Lib Dem leader was to establish a commission to examine social mobility, chaired by chief executive of Barnardo’s Martin Narey. Social mobility is also a natural fit with Nick’s cabinet committee responsibilities, as he chairs the cabinet committee on domestic affairs…

If the Lib Dems are to prove we have made a difference to the country – that we have made the UK fairer as a direct consequence of our involvement in the Coalition – then social mobility is definitely the right issue for Nick Clegg to adopt and make his own in the next few years.

An “astonishing” achievement by Nick Clegg

Much more recently, Matthew D’Ancona has expressed a similar view to Stephen’s:

All governments say they are in favour of “social mobility” and issue appropriate platitudes. But this one seems to mean business, thanks in large part to the fire in Clegg’s belly. The ministerial committee exploring the issue has come to be recognised as a forum where important decisions are taken… the policies and governing strategy that are being formulated under this rubric will be deeply controversial, and (in Clegg’s eyes, at any rate) they are meant to be…

It remains astonishing that Clegg has persuaded a Conservative-dominated Government to undertake this project. Labour MPs whisper their congratulations to Lib Dem ministers, and express justified amazement that a Coalition led by products of Eton, Westminster and St Paul’s has embarked on this social crusade.

It is indeed a major achievement, but as I put it earlier this year in a piece on social mobility for Liberator:

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?

What’s the real aim?

A more equal society is popular with the public, and even more so with Liberal Democrat activists. But if that’s real objective then why not talk about it?

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