So much for social mobility

Ben Rawlence

Alan Milburn, the government's paradoxically named ‘social mobility tsar’, last week released the first annual report of his Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. The findings are not surprising: inequality is getting worse; the government will miss its child poverty targets by up to two million; 275,000 more children are now in absolute poverty, two-thirds of them in working households; youth unemployment is at a 20-year high. The report concludes:

We see a danger that social mobility, having risen in the middle of the last century then flatlined in the end, could go into reverse in the first part of this century.

This is bad news for Nick Clegg, who declared in 2011 that the ultimate test of the coalition was whether it increased social mobility – this on top of the spurious idea that increasing mobility rather than reducing income inequality, let alone general financial inequality, should be the proper aim of progressives. Clegg's attempt to square progressive feelings with regressive policies was bound to fail. The report is the first government-sponsored source of evidence that it is.

Clegg has said the report ‘makes some debatable assertions’. He should count himself lucky; if the commission had used inequality as a measure, the conclusions would have been far more damaging. Inequality in Britain declined steadily from the late 1930s until 1976. Since then it has been rising, though the rate briefly slowed during the New Labour years. We are now at our most unequal since 1940.

The Milburn commission proposes putting more of the burden of fiscal consolidation on pensioners, paying a living wage, improving vocational education and introducing universal child care: all useful measures, all unthinkable under the coalition. It’s a sign of how far Clegg has come that most of them were once Lib Dem policy.

Anyone who actually cares about social mobility and inequality (which should be all of us, however self-interested, since everyone benefits from a more equal society in terms of lower crime, better health, lower unemployment and higher levels of happiness) faces a larger problem: a collapse in the idea of what the state is for. Once upon a time, reducing inequality was a central concern of the state, considered a good thing by governments of all stripes. Now we have one small piece of government that splits hairs and measures mobility.

Since the 1980s, we have engaged in what Tony Judt called ‘collective forgetting’, coming to believe that the state was born bloated and private has always been best. I was recently dismayed to have to explain to a group of young people that the utility companies were nationalised in the 1930s and 1940s precisely to address the kind of price-fixing and price-gouging that they appear to accept with a shrug as the modus operandi of corporate Britain. Faced with the impunity of the corporate sector, many young people today dream not of taming it, but of joining it (that’s social mobility for you).

Meanwhile, in place of the welfare state, we now have the transactional state. The job of government is to balance the books and deliver services. Political parties compete on competence and efficiency, not on any vision of what constitutes a good or fair society. The terms of political debate are economic (debt, deficits, cuts), not moral or, even, in the old sense of the word, political, between competing classes and interest groups. The framing of our current politics, the yardstick by which all other considerations are judged and excluded, is an overriding obsession with how to instrumentalise economic growth.

But growth has very little to do with inequality or, as David Cameron likes to remind us, happiness. When George Osborne says that we can't afford to help everyone, or when Clegg says that the coalition has done more to create an ‘open society’ than New Labour ‘managed at a time of plenty’, we should remember that the welfare state was built on the back of a postwar national debt twice as large as the present one; that, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate in The Spirit Level, all the social ills condemned by governments (crime, poor health, unemployment) have been empirically shown to be best and most cheaply combatted through broad-based efforts at reducing inequality; and that, despite the strikes, inflation and IMF bailout, 1976 regularly comes out top in surveys of when people in Britain were happiest.


  • 23 October 2013 at 10:26am
    SpinningHugo says:
    "inequality is getting worse"

    Save that the report, when you read it, does not say that. See pages 113, 133, and the indicator summary charts at pages 12, 13 and 38.

    "Inequality in Britain declined steadily from the late 1930s until 1976. Since then it has been rising, though the rate briefly slowed during the New Labour years."

    Again, just wrong. Look at the relevant pages above, and in particular the charts in the indicator summary. Inequality rose from the 1970s to 2008. From 2008 to now inequality has declined.

    It will almost certainly rise again (as the report says) as the recovery occurs.

    The lesson is clear, if you want to reduce inequality hope for a nice long depression.

    • 23 October 2013 at 11:27am
      Harry Stopes says: @ SpinningHugo
      Not sure how you draw that conclusion. Don't the data indicate that inequality fell during the postwar boom. It's not so much a question of how the economy is doing, but who it's doing it for.

  • 23 October 2013 at 12:11pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Nick Clegg, though an excellent whipping boy ("good egg") is not solely to blame for the centrifugification of society by market forces.

    What about the Nick Cleggs in New Labour, the North London Dinner Party? To believe in the equal life, you have to want it in your bones.

    By 1976 there were twenty years' worth of 1944 Education Act, socially mobile educated, bringing new blood to the party. Now, increasingly, subtly, education is seen by Conservative, the British Tea Party, as something you must pay for. This goes against the wisdom of the years that education is not so much a right as a good idea.

    How strange that shareholder value, the cold blood of the actively avaricious, encourages a consumer society rather than a productive one.