I don’t want to be socially mobile, ta

29th September, 2014 11:09 am

Social Mobility. It’s one of those phrases that we bandy about, that we have filed under ‘Good Things’. We debate endlessly over the best way to achieve it, fight over who has done more to support it, but we never really talk about what ‘Social Mobility’ actually means. Like ‘Middle Class’, ‘Social Mobility’ is a brand – we know what we mean, and we take as read that everyone else knows too.

So it always comes as a shock to people when I tell them – I don’t want to be socially mobile, ta.

White City Estate

Social mobility actually means moving from one class to another. We aren’t actually talking about increased opportunities; we’re talking about increased access to a particular kind of opportunity.

I work in residential care, on a unit for people with advanced dementia and nursing needs. Whenever I talk about the low wages that people earn in care, or the lack of support from government, or the difficulties I have running a house around a stressful job, the answer I get is the same: Can’t you get a better job? No, actually. I love what I do, I’m good at it and its fulfilling a social need – there is no better job. I don’t want a ‘Middle Class Job’, and I don’t even want a ‘Middle Class Lifestyle’. I just want the support to do my ‘Working Class Job’ properly and to earn a living wage for it, so I can support my ‘Working Class Lifestyle’ – which I like, thanks.

I’m also a Labour councillor, representing the ward of Swanscombe, where one in three children live in poverty and a quarter of residents rely on social housing. When I mention that I’m currently looking to move there, people ask why I don’t move to a better area. There is no better area than Swanscombe. People in Swanscombe support their neighbours and their local community, they engage with local politics and they give up their precious time to make their area better. They don’t want to escape Swanscombe. They just want the support they deserve.

But this is more than a statement of working class pride. This is a warning about a flawed assumption that has us sleep walking into bad policy.

My heart sank when I heard Tony Blair pledge that 50% of young people would go to university. It was supposed to mean that everyone would have access to a better education, but in reality it only increased access to an education like his. For anyone that didn’t share Tony Blair’s ambition, didn’t have the same particular skills or want the same sort of life, university wasn’t a ‘better education’. It was a thoroughly inappropriate one. Moreover, it was one that they couldn’t compete in, not against those people who were naturally suited to it. So they ended up losing in what became the only game in town. If, instead of pushing half the nation in one direction, we had fairly invested in all types of training, we would be better off now. Our total dedication to the Social Mobility Brand has left us with a devalued graduate market, a wider gulf between those with degrees and those without, and a higher education system we cannot financially maintain.

Ed Miliband is now pledging more support for apprentices, but the underlying problem persists. We make policies based on the notion of escaping the working class, not improving it. From tax breaks for married couples to affirmative action in traditionally white collar jobs, the vision for working class Britain focuses entirely on helping us into a different lifestyle. Not all of these policies are inadvertently harmful in the way Blair’s university pledge was. Some might be fine for those people that do want to mobile on up the social ladder. But there is still a blindness to the alternatives that is failing people.

We assume everyone wants to own a home, never considering whether some people like living in council houses. To suggest that a nation of council house tenants might be a happier one, where people benefited from economies of scale and could pay for proper maintenance on a lower rent, would be political suicide. To most politicians, council housing is associated with a ‘lower’ class and making things better means getting away from it. Perhaps if there was a single politician with a positive experience of council housing the idea would have been mooted, but to everyone in Westminster ‘council housing’ is just a marker of a negative brand.

This brings us back to that age old discussion of how we get more working class people into Parliament. I agree, it would help enormously – but even this discussion falls fowl of the problem it aims to fix. It’s always a discussion of how we get more working class people into a middle class institution – we never talk about making the institution less middle class.

Parliament has a decidedly middle class language that you are perhaps deaf to if it’s your mother tongue. I only speak a little bit of Westminster. I’ve picked up little bits of the etiquette, awkwardly, as I’ve gone along. I’ve been to political events and had no idea which fork to use. I’ve smiled along at jokes about things that might be places or people for all I know. It’s hard getting on in a world where everything from your accent to your drink choices mark you out as different. Especially where there is an assumption that you are still too common to enjoy certain things, rather than your tastes being different but equally valid.

The answer to my dilemma? Make me more middle class. Remove the barriers to my entry by helping me to look, dress, sound and behave the ‘right’ way. As well as being insulting, this approach is never going to work. You can put as much effort into learning a language as you like, you’ll never be as confident as a native speaker. For as long as I’m having to play a character I’ll never have equal access.

So, with respect, you can keep your social mobility. If you really want to give it to other people, you’ll have to give some thought to what it actually means.

Steve Doran is a Labour Councillor for Swanscombe

Value our free and unique service?

LabourList has more readers than ever before - but we need your support. Our dedicated coverage of Labour's policies and personalities, internal debates, selections and elections relies on donations from our readers.

If you can support LabourList’s unique and free service then please click here.

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail moderator@labourlist.org
  • vi_sa

    Just out of curiousity – is the photo above from a building in Wembley? Rather close to Wembley Park station and Wembley stadium? Not sure why they chose this to depict working class neighbourhoods (I assume that was what they wanted since the article is on the topic.)
    But very good point about the sense of community – this echoes what Cameron started talking about with Big Society. Thatcher said the same thing with her quote that is so often deliberately misunderstood by the Left – take care of yourself, your family and your neighbours, your community. That is society. Government is not society.

  • Richard Smyth

    Great article that hits the right note for me. Just because some people want to climb the pole at work does not mean we all want to and neither should we be punished for making this decision.

    Also lets not forget if everybody actually manages to get a “middle class” management job there wouldn’t be anybody left to do the actual work that needs doing.

    • MonkeyBot5000

      Also lets not forget if everybody actually manages to get a “middle
      class” management job there wouldn’t be anybody left to do the actual
      work that needs doing.

      Quoted for truth.

  • swatnan

    A good article about the meaning of dumbing up, or dumbing down, and the benefits of.
    And what standards are all about; and about progress and development and evolution and aspiration. And about different cultures clashing and which wins out in the end.
    Basically its about whether civilisation is good for you, or whether modernisation really does lead to happiness, or as is more likely, not.
    The fact is modernisation leads to a better quality of life in more comfort, and leaves more time for relaxation and not wall to wall working and having enough food to eat.
    The downside is that we all tend live longer and a become a burden in our old age to society at large.
    Its about individuals in society and the social contract they make with the State, and whether they have a right to resist change, and do their own thing. its about Individualism and Liberty and tthe price of freedom, and whether you are prepared to pay that price by opting out.

  • Good Article. Social mobility is usually taken to mean climbing up the ‘ladders’. It also means falling down the ‘snakes’ when good jobs are lost !

  • MrSauce

    I don’t want it either.
    Quite happy where I am, thanks.
    Lord Mandelson.

  • Jane Millican

    It is actually quite amusing being working class in a conventionally middle class
    workplace. Many of my bosses have felt compelled to explain their working class
    credentials to me, often in a tone of voice that I would reserve for my pet
    cat. It is usually something about their Granddad and Wales.

  • RWP

    Nice story but the analysis is flawed – there’s no such thing as “class”, at least not in a monolithic, “working class”, “middle class” sense.

    • Well, there is such a thing as class. Except, if this is what you mean, many who consider themselves to be “middle class” because they have reasonably well paid jobs should rightly consider themselves to be working class because they are paid wage labourers in exactly the same way as the old working class, as exemplified by the miners and dockers, were working class.

      The forces of Capital have largely defeated the old working class. Guess who they are coming for now?

  • Dave Postles

    Thank you.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    To most politicians, council housing is associated with a ‘lower’ class

    So most politicians are bigoted scumbags.

    Which of your party are the scumbags and what are you doing to deal with them?

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    There is nothing at all wrong with the author’s view: indeed it shows pride in his self.

    But for all that do not want to be socially mobile, there are equally those that do, and Labour should not put barriers in their way. And for all of those who are content to remain as they always have been, they may have children not yet old enough to have an adult opinion, but whose chances of change should not be crushed by their parents’ current opinions.

  • Leon Wolfeson

    The reality is that there is a rise both in real (“this job needs a degree”) and perceived (“we require a degree for this job”) need for a degree. Countries are increasing their graduate rates…except the UK, where it’s fallen over the last decade. (Countries with low graduate rates like Germany are reliant on importing graduates!)

    It’s not a good target for you.

    Also, what are you actually suggesting in the way of policy? A basic income? (I’d be in favour)


LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends