Perspectives: Social Mobility
By Verity Barton & Ross Melton, Public Policy London
As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we are navigating an increasingly polarised world, evaluating our priorities, and seeking solutions to old and emerging challenges. To help guide businesses and individuals on this journey, Instinctif Partners is launching its new “Perspectives” series, bringing together two (mostly) contrasting viewpoints to some of the thorny topics of the day.
Our aim is not to tell you what you should think or how you should feel about an issue, but to help you navigate these divides by identifying not only the differences but also the common ground between these “opposing” perspectives.
Ross and Verity work in our Public Policy team to help clients build relationships, reputation and influence in the political and public policy arena. They use politics to drive business success, navigate complex political environments and provide real and tangible solutions to Government. Both in their mid-30s, they have different life experiences, different backgrounds and different politics, but they are passionate about debate and understanding different points of view. For them, the new Perspectives series is about broadening their own understanding, even if they don’t change their minds.
As a business, Instinctif Partners is passionate about social mobility and helping everyone realise their full potential. For the first issue of Perspectives, we wanted to take a look across the political divide to understand how those on the right and left view social mobility.
But this isn’t just about what we think – we want you to engage in the conversation. Which perspective do you think most aligns with yours? Do you think there really a right- left social mobility divide? Let us know on social media or get in touch via email – we’d love to hear from you.
Social mobility: The Left-winger’s view
Labour’s shared understanding of social mobility has evolved over time: from Hardie and Webb committing the newly minted Labour Party to securing a guaranteed minimum standard of living funded by increased taxation on the wealthiest in society; to New Labour’s individualist approach to higher education aimed at empowering everyone to secure the qualifications needed to make a better life.
My experience of social mobility debates in local and national Labour forums tends to orbit around two poles – meritocracy and social justice.
Implicit within the centre left’s conception of social mobility is the idea of meritocracy. I’ve heard New Labour grandees recognise in one breath that society is deeply and inherently unequal – spotlighting vestigial feudalism in the House of Lords and the UK’s increasingly poor performance in global social mobility rankings – before arguing that meritocratic-based social mobility will give everyone the same equality of opportunity, enabling the best and brightest, rather than only the privileged and connected, to reach the top.
The problems with this approach are threefold. First, our lived experience of decades of an ostensibly meritocratic UK have shown inequality increase rather than decrease. As Labour’s 2019 manifesto notes, meritocracy is not designed to reduce inequality, “Implicit in the notion of social mobility is the idea that poverty and inequality are acceptable provided some people can climb the social ladder.”
As spotlighted by Michael Sandel’s recent study “The Tyranny of Merit”, meritocracy is also extremely vulnerable to capture by traditional elites, able to buy access to high quality education and use their extensive networks to secure the best employment and opportunities. Even worse, meritocracy allows traditional elites to believe that their success has been earned through merit rather than the result of historic privilege, while blaming the most vulnerable in society for failing to succeed in an environment increasingly stacked against them, making them open to Trumpian claims that “the game is rigged”.
The left-wing alternative is social justice, which seeks to implement policies which end inequality completely through the redistribution of wealth. Social justice seeks to right historic wrongs – particularly racism and sexism – by removing contemporary barriers to education, opportunities and wealth for people from historically oppressed communities.
Social justice sounds beguiling because it seeks to recast society on a more equal footing, but in prioritising collective equality by addressing systemic injustices the theory risks trampling individual hopes and aspirations. In conversation with friends and social justice advocates, I occasionally feel like they see me less as a person, more like a unique collection of privileges and disadvantages that need to be fixed or evened out. In seeking to create a more equal society, social justices’ strongest advocates can sometimes overlook or underplay the joy in our own unique talents, experiences and perspectives. On the other hand, as we’ve all experienced, pure meritocracy has proven to be too rooted in unequal systems and injustices of the status quo to deliver the fundamental change necessary for a more equal and just society.
This leaves Labour at a bit of an impasse, torn between two interpretations of social mobility with strong detractors and passionate advocates within the Party. As recent elections have demonstrated, when the Left doesn’t have a coherent, compelling and hopeful social mobility offering, communities turn their backs on us; instead voting for populist showmen with easy answers. If the Labour Party is to ever return to Government, we must develop a new iteration of social mobility combining the vaulting ambition of social justice with the individual aspirations of meritocracy.
I’d suggest that Labour’s next social mobility policy needs to:
1. Redistribute opportunities and wealth
Economist Alan Kruger’s famous “Gatsby Curve” highlights that higher income inequality is inversely linked with falling social mobility. This underlines the obvious that countries with more progressive taxation (higher taxes on the wealthiest) have more to spend on programmes that increase social mobility.
2. Treat communities unequally to achieve equality
We must propose policies tailored to overcoming inequalities specific to marginalised communities. This could include adapting successful economic empowerment policies pioneered in post-apartheid South Africa to improve opportunities for ethnic minorities and disabled people, while reducing embedded gender inequality.
3. Celebrate individual success
We must develop policies which celebrate individual talent while also recognising that everyone stands on the shoulders of the teacher working long hours, the bus driver who drove them to work, and the shared infrastructure that helped them along their path to success.
One of the remarkable similarities between right and left wing perspectives is that they both believe that social mobility can be “solved” by the right policy, be it through deregulation of markets to unfetter buccaneering capitalists or by the sledgehammer of social justice.
But the truth is that achieving a more equal, fair and prosperous society through social mobility is a task that can never be completed. Societies change, economic and political fortunes inevitably rise and fall, and sadly new prejudices can emerge. But in striving to meet our shared ambition of a more mobile society, we can all reap the benefits of aspiring to be more than we are today.
Social mobility: A Conservative perspective
To paraphrase the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.
As a Conservative, I believe in the individual not the collective, in the power of aspiration and in equality of opportunity so that everyone can realise their potential. When I was a university student, I volunteered with a charity whose model of service was centred on giving people a hand up, not just a handout, and it’s a philosophy that has stayed with me ever since. For me and many other Conservative voters and supporters, social mobility is about making sure that regardless of background, race, or creed, we all have the same chances and opportunities in life.
When Michael Gove published the Government’s Levelling Up white paper recently, it showed that social mobility is the thread which runs through the Government’s commitment to levelling up. We still need more detail about specific programmes and the real test will be in the implementation, but there is a clear commitment from the government to address the very obvious (and not so obvious) regional disparities so we can make sure that young people – and the next generation of leaders – have the same opportunities regardless of where they grew up and where they went to school.
For me, though, it’s not just about Government spending more money. A key responsibility of Government is creating the right environment for the private sector to genuinely thrive and create jobs across the country.
I absolutely accept there is a role for Government in delivering targeted investment and delivering major infrastructure and better connectivity to remove barriers to private sector investment and growth; but the solution to all our challenges cannot simply be Government spending and, as a result, a bigger state. In my mind, that holds people back. It stymies innovation and growth, it doesn’t empower aspiration and self-determination, and it doesn’t create opportunities or deliver better outcomes in the longer term.
As an individual, I recognise that I’ve been lucky and blessed by my own circumstances and the opportunities that’s given me. I had an ‘Old Girls’ network through school, and it gave me opportunities and helped open doors, simply because people saw the name of the school I went to. Whilst I took advantage of that, I know that it’s not fair, and that’s why equality of opportunity is a driving force behind so much of my philosophy and that of many other Conservatives.
When I look at the Government’s approach to social mobility and levelling up, it’s clear that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove are trying to strike the right balance here.
As I say, the real test will be in the implementation and delivery; but in the first instance, we should welcome the Government’s bold vision for our country because having ambition must be the starting point for achieving that vision. The driving force behind this mission to level up the country must be that the circumstances of our birth do not determine our outcomes in life.
There is now a role for all of us to play, not just the Government, in getting this right, so that people can be optimistic about their future and that of their children, so that people can be ambitious and aspirational, and so that people can realise their full potential.
Read Ross and Verity’s Perspectives piece on rising energy prices in the UK