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

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