Rising up: a jellyfish in sea of the Farne Islands, England. Photo: Getty
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Jellyfish McSaveloy and the social mobility of surnames

Tracking the movement of second names shows how they can affect our life chances.  

Some people like the idea of having what we call a fun name,” such as “Jellyfish McSaveloy” and “Daddy Fantastic”, the Deed Poll website reveals. The UK is relatively permissive when it comes to “fun” names; Denmark, on the other hand, has compiled a list of approved baby names, and last year New Zealand published a selection of banned ones.

By the time a Jellyfish McSaveloy reaches their teens, you can be fairly certain they will be either thick-skinned or a hardened street fighter, but even more common names often hold clues to a person’s background and social standing. A girl named Eleanor is 100 times more likely to attend Oxford University than one named Jade. For economists, the links between certain names and the holder’s wealth and social status make them a useful research tool.

In 2005, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, attempted to unpick how a person’s name affects his or her life chances. Although there is no evidence that a name can change your life, they believe that many babies’ names reflect their parents’ aspirations for them. The evidence: the names that are most popular among wealthier and highly educated Americans become popular among more disadvantaged groups within a few decades. The suggestion is that parents name their children after their more advantaged peers: “Whether they realise it or not, [they] like the sound of names that sound ‘successful’.”

A deeper investigation into names and social mobility was recently conducted by Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, in his book The Son Also Rises. Standard measures of social mobility, which cover only one generation, have no way of discounting the element of luck that affects individual achievement, Clark argues. So he has attempted to measure social mobility over several centuries by tracking the movement of surnames.

In medieval England, many surnames, such as Baker, Plumber and Smith, described a person’s profession. In contrast, the elite often took their surnames from their ancestral home and the “super-elite” could trace their names to the Norman conquerors listed in the 1086 Domesday Book. By the late 1300s, surnames were often inherited; by analysing the names of those entering the great medieval institutions, such as the Church, parliament and Oxbridge, you can measure how many sons of artisans or manual labourers climbed the social ladder. Contrary to popular opinion, medieval England had the same “slow but persistent” rate of social mobility as modern Sweden, Clark argues.

Nor has Britain’s rate of social mobility changed much since then. Clark also traces the progression of a number of rare surnames, such as Bazalgette, Sotheby and Courtauld, that in 1858 were held by some of the UK’s wealthiest families. Even today, the surnames that in the mid-19th century were a mark of high social status are three times more common among MPs than among the rest of the population. Knowing that someone born in 1990 shares the same surname as someone born in 1813 who died wealthy is enough to predict that they are six times more likely than average to study at Oxbridge.

Clark shows that it can take between ten and 15 generations to erase family poverty or prosperity. As tempting as it might be to name your son Warren Buffett in the hope he will end up rich, it won’t make any difference. You might as well call him Jellyfish. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

Len McCluskey. Photo: Getty
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Unite leadership race: What Len McCluskey's victory means

His margin is smaller than expected, but you only need to win by one. 

Come at the king, best not miss. And they did miss, albeit by a smaller margin than many expected. Len McCluskey has defeated Gerard Coyne, his Corbynsceptic rival, by 59,067 votes to 53,544 to remain as Unite's general secretary. Ian Allinson, running to McCluskey’s left, did surprisingly well with 17,143 votes.

A couple of things to note. The turnout was low – just 12.2 per cent – brought down by, among other things, the need to cast a postal vote and the view of the McCluskey camp that the smaller the turnout, the more important the payroll vote would be. But more significant is that Unite has shed about half a million members, confirming that it is anachronistic to refer to it as “Britain’s largest trade union”. That is, for the moment, Unison, a public sector union. (Unison actually had a lightly larger general fund membership by the close of 2015 but this decisively confirms that trend.)

The shift attests to the bigger – and neglected – story about the labour movement: that it is getting smaller, older, and more concentrated in the public sector. That’s a far bigger problem for the Labour party and the labour movement than who leads Unite or the Labour party.

That aside, the small margin is a shock – as I wrote last month, Unite is quite well-run these days, so you’d make McCluskey the favourite even before factoring in the ability of the incumbent to make life easier for himself. Most in the trade union movement expected McCluskey to win and win well for precisely that reason. As one senior official from another union put it: “Jaguar workers are earning more because of Len. That’s what it’s about, really.”

So the small margin means that Coyne may be found a role at the TUC and gently eased out the door rather than removed hastily. (Though the TUc would be highly unlikely to accept that arrangement.)Ian Allison, however, will be less lucky. One McCluskey loyalist said that the leftist would be “hunted with dogs” – not only was Allison expected not to do well, allies of McCluskey believed that he had agreed to tone down his campaign. Instead Allison's success contributed to the close-run result. (Unite uses first past the post to decide its internal contests.)

What does it mean for the struggle for control within Labour? Well, as far as the finely-balanced national executive committee is concerned, Unite’s nominees are elected at annual conference so any changes would be a way off, in any case.

The result does however increase the chances that Jeremy Corbyn will be able to stay on after a defeat. Removing Corbyn would mean handing control back to Tom Watson, with whom McCluskey's relations are now at an all time low. “I think there’s a feeling of: you came for me, you bastard, now I’m coming for you,” a trade union official says. That means that the chances that Corbyn will be able to weather a defeat on 8 June – provided Labour retain close to what one figure dubbed the “magic number” of 200 seats – have now considerably increased.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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