It is difficult not to glaze over as you read the Government’s latest musings on social mobility. It is like having your least favourite record from 1997 playing on permanent loop. Many of us have been waiting for the moment when this Labour government would finally realise that social mobility is fundamentally at odds with core Labour values of equality, co-operation and inclusion. This was not it.
Social mobility continues to be speciously equated with fairness by its advocates. ‘Fairness’ in turn has been so wrung dry of any principled and ambitious meaning that it is now all but worthless as a guiding principle in any political credo (by what definition of fairness has New Labour created a ‘fairer’ society when it has overseen a rise in inequality?). Social mobility is about meritocracy and as such offers the narrowest possible definition of fairness. Meritocracy fails to create a more just society because at best it is about removing obstacles from the paths of those who have the energy and luck to be able to make the most of their talents, and at worst it is about social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest and the demise of the rest. As the former it provides a limiting vision of our society-to-be. As the latter, it subverts social egalitarianism and solidarity in a way that should be explicitly repudiated by the left.
Equality of opportunity is the mast and main sail on New Labour’s ship of social justice, and central to the proposed new order is the ladder of opportunity, up which those with talent and resolve will climb, displacing those who lack such qualities. But by its own logic, equality of opportunity as both goal and method does not make sense. The social ladder is all about relative advantage, but the race is only fair if everyone starts from the same point and has equal prospects of progressing. For that to be the case, equality of condition is the pre-requisite of the perfect operation of equality of opportunity.
In short, in a meritocracy the strategies and resources, self-belief and social capital available to the better-off – or the accident of birth – mean that the social ladder will never operate justly. This is not rocket science and historically it has been at the heart of Labour’s analysis of society’s malaise. But it is relevant now more than ever, as we watch the most vulnerable suffering the worst consequences of the inherent failings of our neo-liberal capitalist system.
We will fail to create a just and equal society if we choose to ignore the more complex and contentious questions of how talent is defined and rewarded and how the ingredients of effort relate in the first place to social position. Social justice must go so much deeper than simply clearing the way for those who are able and tenacious. It is above all about how we look after those who may have less to contribute, who encounter bad luck or who simply make mistakes – factors that public policy can seek to mitigate but will never eliminate. They may be teenage mothers, care leavers, repeat offenders or refugees; they may have long-term health problems, learning difficulties or drug-related problems; they may be homeless or in abusive relationships. Or they may quite simply have fewer inherited abilities, having to work ten or twenty times harder at things that come easily to others. These groups have become increasingly neglected and neither coercion and exhortation nor a social mobility narrative that turns on equal opportunity will help them. For an approach that focuses on opportunities and not on the human condition cannot speak to those for whom lack of opportunity is not in fact the chief problem.
Politicians continue to pretend that we can have it all – unfettered individualism and huge income disparities alongside good social outcomes and a strong society. The evidence shows otherwise and we have become dangerously unaware of the fact that the destinies of the weakest are bound up with ours. It is not only that the mortification of the poor diminishes us all, but also that it materially affects us – contributing to alienation and a whole host of poor social outcomes. Redistribution and collective responsibility are not zero-sum games where the more we share with others the less we have for ourselves. They are ways of living and of being that mean we are all better off.
Such a vision of an egalitarian society is capable of uniting us all around a common purpose and a new social ethic that goes far beyond self-realisation and appeals to people’s moral sense and concern for others. What might it look like in terms of a government programme? In terms of tax and benefits, the focus would be on distributional justice – lowering the level at which the new 50 per cent tax rate kicks in from £150,000 to £100,000, a crack down on tax avoidance and evasion, a pledge to increase overall benefit levels for children in low-income families faster than average earnings, and the introduction of a living wage, based on an analysis of the actual income required for an adequate standard of living. Hand in hand with these measures would come a significant injection of new funding into Sure Start children’s centres, the standardisation of school status and entrance criteria, an end to charitable status for private schools, pay rises for teachers and nurses, and an entitlement to eighteen months paid transferable parental leave. And this would of course be just the start.
‘Unleashing Aspiration’ is the title of the Government’s latest blue-print for social mobility. The difficulty is that many of us are aspiring to something quite different from the individualistic, acquisitive, status-driven model of success that New Labour wishes to build its general election campaign around. Instead, we aspire for all our talents and gifts to be recognised, not just those that generate money. We aspire to spend less time working and more time with family and friends. We aspire to be generous, to give of what we have and who we are. We aspire to have neighbours who greet us and to live in communities where we are known. We aspire to go slow, dawdle even. We aspire to be free from the information bombardment, to know more about the things that matter in life, and less about the things that do not. We aspire to be in tune with the natural environment upon which we rely. We aspire to see our children thrive in an education system that is more than a protracted process of university entrance, and to know we will be looked after should our luck turn. We aspire to have political leaders who seek to challenge and transform rather than feed our baser inclinations – our desire to own things we do not need while others go without, and our desire to advance at the expense of another.
So we aspire to equality of freedom. A freedom that embraces all aspects of our material and emotional wellbeing – the freedom to flourish, to be unique, and to be happy, as well as the freedom to use all our talents to achieve our potential. Inequality works against positive freedoms by creating a hierarchical society that encourages competition and individualism, and that prejudices life chances, stifles diversity, and undermines healthy human relationships. Equality of freedom helps us to think not only about why some freedoms are beyond the reach of so many from the day they come into this world when for others they are received as a birthright, but also about why a sense of freedom eludes many on higher incomes despite material security. Equality of freedom is an expression of egalitarianism that is about enabling and levelling up, concerned for people on all rungs of the social ladder. Unlike social mobility, its success does not rely on equivalent starting points or on an unbalancing focus on the able and energetic, but on a commitment to meeting everyone where they are and equipping them to reach where they want to get to.
We do not need to be lectured on aspiration. We have aspirations and it is fair to say that they are considerably bolder than the Government’s.
* New report by Rebecca Hickman, entitled “In pursuit of egalitarianism: and why social mobility cannot get us there“ offers a compelling vision of the good society and a strong critique of the incoherent concept of “social mobility”.