Political

Government skirts round deciding how important social mobility is as an end in itself

As Chris Dillow has highlighted, the Coalition Government’s social mobility strategy contains wording that looks like a compromise between different Liberal Democrat and Conservative influences. It’s in this key paragraph (1.43):

Of course, income equality is an important goal in its own right, but the challenge in terms of social mobility is to understand the key components of a more mobile society which do not appear to be related to simple measures of income equality.

If income equality is important and it has an impact on social mobility, why go on then to emphasise and concentrate on only those elements of social mobility which are not related to income equality? The answer of course is that this is a compromise document produced by a coalition.

Although Chris Dillow talks of it being a compromise between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, as if the Lib Dems are all of one view, in this case I suspect he’s being a little too generous to the Liberal Democrats as there is plenty of room for disagreement within the Liberal Democrats over the relative importance and connections between income equality and social mobility.

There is much very good in the social mobility strategy – including the very fact that a Conservative Prime Minister has been persuaded to sign-off on a document that says “Of course, income equality is an important goal in its own right” and which, in addition to these words, lays out many policies that have not exactly been loved by the right in British politics. It is indeed, as Matthew D’Ancona put it, “an astonishing achievement”.

But whatever the exact cause of the compromise wording and despite these good parts to it, we are still left none the wiser as to where Nick Clegg really wants to lead the party on the issue of income equality. Aside from the problems of social mobility being a phrase that doesn’t work with the public and which obscures the question of who is moving down if more people are moving up, there is a substantive policy debate to be had here. It’s one in which the words “social mobility” can even get in the way, as Charlie Beckett argues:

I wonder if the words ‘social mobility’ should join @johnrentoul ‘s list of banned phrases? I think it has now reached the point George Orwell described where ‘political writing becomes bad writing’.

Social mobility is now a meaningless phrase, or rather, it has a different meaning according to your political position and vision. And this matters because your definition of the language dictates your policy, too.

Real social mobility – all other things being equal – must surely mean that some people will rise over their lives and others will fall. If we all rise then that is simply economic growth. If only a lower social group rise relative to a higher group, then that is egalitarianism, not social mobility. If just a few people rise, then that’s just tokenism. Of course, you might have all of this at the same time. And West Ham might win the Champions League. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely.

The party currently has a Policy Working Group which is looking at many of these issues and, looking at the make-up of the group, it’s not hard to predict that it will come out with recommendations that place a significant emphasis on income equality. That will at least give party conference a chance to take a view on this issue, but in the interim day in, day out ministers are making decisions – and from the public statements from Liberal Democrat ministers there is no clear, consistent view being put forward.

But for all those problems and caveats, there is much that is good in a social mobility strategy the highlights of which include a new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission being established, not to mention success for Lynne Featherstone’s name-blank employment campaign.

Nick Clegg said at the social mobility strategy’s launch:

Fairness is one of the fundamental values of the Coalition Government. A fair society is an open society where everybody is free to flourish and where birth is never destiny.

In Britain today, life chances are narrowed for too many by the circumstances of their birth: the home they’re born into, the neighbourhood they grow up in or the jobs their parents do. Patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next.

A recent report by the Sutton Trust estimated that the economic benefits of improving social mobility could be worth £140 billion a year by 2050. This is not only a question of fairness – opening up opportunities is in the interests of the economy and of the country.

There is no particular age when the cycles of disadvantage can be broken. The opportunity gap has to be addressed at every stage of life, from early years to working age. And Government cannot do it alone. Employers, parents, communities and voluntary organisations all have a part to play.

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