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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

How can "social mobility" become more than a political soundbite?

Perhaps the most depressing feature of last week’s Liberal Democrat conference, at least from a personal perspective, was a fringe meeting I attended on social mobility. Hosted by CentreForum and the ACCA and supposedly debating “breaking down barriers to social mobility”, I was particularly attracted to the event because of the promised attendance of Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee.

Unfortunately Ms Toynbee’s invite must have got lost somewhere but there was still a distinguished panel of current and retired academics as well as Norman Lamb MP. What solutions did they have for “breaking down the barriers”?

Lamb started off positively, citing the now standard Liberal Democrat position that it is unacceptable for an individual’s life chances to be largely determined by their parentage. He gave a short presentation broadly supporting an agenda of “fairness” and then promptly disappeared to another meeting. Thereafter the meeting became an expression of CentreForum’s inward-looking intellectualism, its disconnection with reality and its patent lack of any idea that could actually make a meaningful contribution to tackling inequality.

In fact, the word “inequality” was seldom mentioned. Neither was “social injustice”. Instead, we were subjected to a lengthy and uninteresting debate about what “mobility” means, especially in relation to getting a more diverse range of people into Russell Group universities which seemed to be the only measure of “mobility” they were interested in. This in turn was followed by an even more unnecessary discussion on “climbing the mobility ladder”. Ah, but what type of ladder? And is it really an escalator? Or maybe even a spiral staircase? This went on for some time.

Fortunately a teacher interjected and angrily but correctly insisted that talk of “climbing” was missing the point. Surely what is needed is equality of opportunity for everyone, not reinforcement of a system that keeps an elite few on a “ladder”? No-one is served by extensive discussions about what “social mobility” might mean to different people, he protested; the chief objective must be to challenge unfairness? This took the CentreForum academics by surprise. To their credit, one of them referred to the aspiration deficit but then was dismissive of commonsense approaches to tackling it. “What are your views on the need to improve careers advice to young people?” asked a young woman from The Prince’s Trust. “Erm, careers advice makes no difference to outcomes” came the reply.

It was thoroughly depressing stuff. The hardest thing to accept was that CentreForum , a think tank associated with but not directly affiliated to the party, has influence in shaping Liberal Democrat policy. A few soundbites, pseudo-intellectual discussions about ladders and recommendations that there should be a few more paid internships hardly amounts to a cogent philosophy on “breaking down barriers”.

The problem with CentreForum’s well meaning but ultimately futile response to the problem is that it is a reaction to political dialogue rather than a genuine exercise in recommending pragmatic solutions. And, for all the debate about the nature of social mobility, there was one stark truth that sticks with me – none of these people knew anything about the crippling effects of social immobility. I asked the panel what they would recommend for someone in my own position and proposed that the “social mobility” they were discussing was a myth (as previously discussed here). The more human member of the panel listened before apologising and explaining that he couldn’t offer any encouragement. Well, at least he’s honest. Obviously in his view the barriers to my own social mobility are so severe thay can not be “broken down”.

The lack of ideas from a think tank disappointed me, but if I’m truthful the thing I found most objectionable was the inability of these people to talk like ordinary people about the things that ordinary people talk about. You know, about someone’s wife not having a job, someone not able to break free from the cycle of unemployment that keeps them down, someone who can’t afford to feed the children never mind think about sending them to university – Russell Group or otherwise. Basically, they were completely unable to relate to people who find themselves “socially immobile” or identify with their problems. Worse still, they had little obvious interest in exploring the complex web of social reality that lies beneath.

I also find it utterly incomprehensible that people can talk about “improving social mobility” without ever referring to the challenge of unemployment.

Is this also true of our party as a whole though? Nick Clegg’s speech was full of his familiar rhetoric: “I have a simple, unquenchable belief: That every child can do good things, great things if only we give them the opportunities they deserve... I have had all the advantages – good school, great parents. I was lucky. But it shouldn't be about luck... In terms of opportunity, we are a nation divided...Odds [are] stacked against too many of our children. A deep injustice, when birth is destiny. That's why I've been leading the charge for social mobility - for fairer chances, for real freedom.” So far, excellent. But what did Nick have to offer beyond platitudes? Not much new, other than a catch-up summer school for disadvantaged children (in my view probably not the best remedy for levelling the playing field). And the welcome emphasis on children is vital, but if the accepted truth that life chances are determined by parentage stands why isn’t more being done to improve opportunities for parents?

As I’ve argued previously, this was a conference of missed opportunities. This is certainly true as far as improving social mobility (and tackling the problems associated with social immobility) is concerned. Simon Hughes talked of a “redistribution of work” that merited further consideration but received none. More obvious economic solutions to relieve unemployment were intentionally avoided in Clegg’s speech. No attention was given to the possibility of enabling more people to reskill and retrain. The reality is that crisis management has replaced dynamic political vision and, as a result, action to alleviate social immobility and its related problems is minimal.

No-one likes impersonal politics or when discourse is dominated by hacks, geeks, party machines or out-of-touch intellectuals. People in Inverclyde and, I imagine, everywhere else are easily turned off by political rhetoric that fails to appreciate them as individuals or understand their concerns. As far as I know, no-one in Port Glasgow sits awake at night contemplating whether the route to finding a job is a theoretical ladder or an escalator. Neither do they think in terms of “social mobility”. They think that life isn’t fair, that maybe it would be different if they had better opportunities to work and train. And they think politicians are out of touch.

The only way for social mobility to become more than an a Liberal Democrat aspiration is for a coherent strategy that simultaneously facilitate economic growth, creates employment, develops an education system that is both life-long and genuinely open to all, improves quality of living in Britain’s more deprived areas, tackles the social injustice of widening income inequality and gives people new aspirations. It is quite a challenge but not one that can afford to be shirked. Bottom-up political approaches can also help – at the very least party policy will be informed by the realities experienced by ordinary people rather than the distant, uninformed and sometimes prejudiced views of the likes of CentreForum.

I despair of all the political talk about social mobility which is often well-intentioned but is doing little to practically improve the life chances of myself or the many others who are struggling to escape from the harsh consequences of social inequality. Certainly social justice requires more than some fighting talk from our leadership and a few short-term initiatives.

Forgive my impatience but time really isn’t on our side, especially with the threat of a double-dip recession and the insecurities it will bring. I know Nick Clegg recognises this. There is so much more to do – I am convinced our party is better placed than ever to deliver the fairness we all believe in, but we can only do it if fine sentiment is matched with bold action.

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