New statistics make the recent general election result difficult to comprehend. They show that 78% of people in London think there are good opportunities to progress, whereas only 31% in the North East believe the same. These figures come from one of three interesting and concerning reports on social mobility published last week that really ought to make politicians of all parties sit up and take notice. They showed just how disconnected politicians have become from voters and how little confidence the public have in them being able to address their concerns. But what has struck me in these first few weeks in parliament is how many of the new Tory MPs who took seats off us last month are already rooted in their communities. They are talking in a language that their constituents can relate to. Sat across from them in the chamber, many of them sound like they could be Labour MPs.
The first of the reports was from the Social Mobility Commission itself, which published a social mobility “barometer”. It found that 77% of people thought there was a large gap between social classes in Britain today, with 44% of people saying that where you end up is largely determined by your background. For so many people still to think that in the 21st century is damning. 39% of people thought it was harder to move “up” in British society than in the past, and 35% of people who identified as working-class felt their financial situation was worse than it was ten years ago. This report paints a pretty depressing picture, which makes the recent general election result all the more surprising after ten years of Tory government.
We also had a report from those long-standing advocates of social mobility, The Sutton Trust. ‘Elites in the UK: Pulling Away?‘ pulls no punches about where this country is at. It found that one in five men in professional occupations who were born between 1955-1961 became socially mobile, but the figure for those born between 1975-1981 is only one in eight. In other words, this is a country in which opportunity is declining. The pull of London was again prominent, with the report finding that two thirds of the most socially mobile people built their careers close to home rather than moving away, but that this group of people are more likely to come from London. The political, economic and cultural centre of this country is London, and it has much to offer, but this report tends to show that it is overly dominant – to the detriment of most other places.
There was also an international comparison of social mobility from the World Economic Forum. They created their own index, which showed the UK ranking at a pretty impressive 21 in the world. However, when the majority of countries above us are our Western European neighbours, it begins to look slightly less impressive with the top performers combining “access, quality and equity in education, while also providing work opportunities and good working conditions, alongside quality social protection and inclusive institutions”. I think even the most optimistic member of the government would struggle to argue we do well in all of those things, and I doubt this is one international comparison we will hear much from them on. Which leads me on to the fundamental question: is social mobility seen as party political issue at all? As Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening was a passionate speaker on the subject, and we all remember Theresa May’s promises to eradicate those “burning injustices”. But there is very little coming from the current government.
Most of the Labour leadership candidates have been talking about the importance of these issues, albeit without using the phrase “social mobility”. They instead talk about aspiration or regional disparities. Outside the Westminster bubble, do people really use the term “social mobility” much anyway? They have a sense that there is less opportunity for the next generation, that London and the big cities dominate, and that where you are born and who you are born to still matter an awful lot. The party needs to tap into that frustration. We must articulate how insecure work, depressed wages and an insular job market are not working for the majority of people in this country – and set out ideas for how that can be changed.
It almost feels as if these challenges are so large, people have lost faith that politicians can do anything about it. We have to change that, and give people hope. Although the new Tories are talking about these things, I doubt that their fine words will withstand the inevitably damaging policies they will end up for voting for. In any event, we as a party should be shouting from the rooftops about the damning findings these reports represent and how the Tories may talk a lot about these issues but actually deliver little in terms of meaningful change. Their party is still led by an old Etonian and has a cabinet stuffed full of privately educated people. It would be gross neglect on our part to allow them to steal our clothes and claim to represent the many not the few.