The myth of social mobility

3rd December 2017


For many in the UK today a life on benefits beckons

The resignation of Alan Milburn as the government’s so called social mobility tsar, should only come as a surprise to anyone who thinks that the government is even remotely interested in social mobility; hold the front page, they are not!

Milburn has been followed out of the door by deputy chair Gillian Shepherd, Paul Gregg, director for the analysis of social policy at the University of Bath and David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation.  The departures effectively knock the commission on its head.  Key posts have gone unfilled for years and the number of commissioners has shrunk from 10 to four, suggesting that the writing has been on the wall for some time.

The commission’s swansong was its State of the Nation 2017 report, published last week which, even according to its own press release,

“…warns that Britain is in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division and calls on government to increase its proportion of spending on those parts of the country that most need it. Estimates suggest that the North is £6 billion a year underfunded compared to London.”

The move dramatically undermines the proclamations of UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, to be on the side of those struggling to make ends meet, the so called, just about managing.  That the words of Tory leaders are at variance with the reality of their policies and actions should come as no surprise but May has played the caring vicar’s daughter card in an attempt to bolster her social credentials.

In her first speech in Downing Street after taking office, May proclaimed,

“When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few, we will do anything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

Those struggling at the sharp end of the opportunity ladder, struggling to make ends meet under the existing benefits regime or awaiting the joy of Universal Credit, were never going to be convinced by May’s warm words.  They probably care little or nothing about the existence of the social mobility commission for that matter but they will worry about paying the rent, getting a job with decent pay and their kids getting a reasonable education.

Commenting on the findings of, what would appear now to be the commission’s final report, Alan Milburn said,

“Tinkering around the edges will not do the trick. The analysis in this report substantiates the sense of political alienation and social resentment that so many parts of Britain feel. A new level of effort is needed to tackle the phenomenon of left behind Britain. Overcoming the divisions that exist in Britain requires far more ambition and far bigger scale. A less divided Britain will require a more redistributive approach to spreading education, employment and housing prospects across our country.”

The reality is that the commission, in spite of its worthy intentions, has only ever skated around the edges of the real core question in relation to social mobility, which is essentially one of class.  Capitalism can extend a certain amount of largesse when the system requires it and the economy is capable of sustaining a limited degree of social movement.  Indeed, it is a positive advantage to create the illusion that such movement is possible.  The rags to riches, log cabin to president mythology of the United States is one example of this.  As ever, the UK has presented the question in a slightly more restrained way, but the idea that we live in a meritocracy, rather than a system dominated by the aristocracy, has had traction since the days of Harold Wilson’s premiership.

The limited social mobility enjoyed by some sections of the working class in the post WW2 period was predicated on the need to train a skilled workforce in order to rebuild a shattered wartime economy.  The nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, setting up the NHS and widespread council house building, were all outcomes of this process.

By the late ‘70’s, when capital could not sustain the expansion of social provision in terms which suited it and the labour movement was not strong enough to press for a real alternative economic approach, the Thatcher government began the process of dismantling the post war social gains.  In so far as Thatcher and her cohorts paid any heed to social mobility it was in the form of selling off council housing, private health care insurance and the ‘loadsamoney’ culture of getting ahead before you get left behind.

The demise of the social mobility commission will once again throw some media light on the divisions within the UK and the fact that we live in a deeply divided and unfair society.  However, the fact that it will not gain as much media coverage as the marriage antics of a minor aristocrat and his TV star fiancé, who in spite of living off state benefits will not be living on a council estate, probably tell us as much as we need to know about the realities of social mobility in the UK today.


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