Want to earn your way up?

Fine – just don’t be a woman, live outside of London, or work part-time.

Who earns their way up in today's Britain? Recent work suggests the story of mobility is not all doom and gloom. It showed a significant rise in overall earnings mobility in the 2000s compared to the 1990s, admittedly starting from a low base. More people are now climbing the earnings ladder in their own lifetime, which of course means that more people are falling down too.

But who benefited from this from increased mobility - who went up, who slid down and who got stuck? Given the constant preoccupation of the entire political class with the notion of social mobility, it's rather surprising that until now none of them could answer these questions. Now new research allows us to fill this gap, and in doing so it tells us some important things about the character of contemporary Britain.

The study tracks a large number of people who were in their thirties through the 1990s and examines what happened to their earnings compared to another group who were in their thirties during the 2000s. It allows us to consider how people have fared according to their gender, occupation, working patterns, region, and education levels. The results are telling not least because the thirties tend to be a decisive decade in determining someone's career prospects and lifetime earnings.

So what are the findings? Some jump off the page. Women are almost 40 per cent more likely than men to fall down the earnings ladder; and that's after taking account of their education levels, occupation, and whether they work full or part-time (though note this is a slight improvement compared to the 1990s). This finding holds up even for women who didn't have children during the decade in question. It tells a rather different story to that recently offered by David Willetts, who suggested that Britain needs to grapple with the consequences of women hoarding greater opportunity in society at the expense of working class men.

Those who worked part-time for the whole decade are much more likely to fall down the earnings ladder - nearly 90 per cent more so - compared to full-timers, a finding that had strengthened in the 2000s compared to the 1990s. That said, the penalty for moving from full-time work to part-time work appears to have diminished, perhaps suggesting the gradual growth of higher quality part-time jobs.

Perhaps most strikingly, given the current concern with 'rebalancing' our economy, where you live matters greatly for your chances of getting on - more so it seems in the 2000s than in the 1990s. In part this is likely to be because the recession of the early 1990s was a great leveller, afflicting London and the South East at least as much as other regions. In the 2000s regional inequality has bitten back with a vengeance, with those living in London being far more likely to get on (again, after taking account of factors like regional skill levels, and occupational mix).

Finally, it will be no surprise to anyone that education levels are crucial in determining earnings patterns. But not everyone would have guessed that the penalty for not holding a degree in the 2000s (when there were far more graduates around) has become much bigger, with non-graduates facing a growing chance of sliding backwards.

So the story on social mobility is not straightforward. Though headlines often tell a simple tale of doom and gloom, the national story is less negative. Yet dig down into the data and dark strands emerge. If you want to earn your way up in modern Britain, your chances overall have improved. But not for everyone. It helps if you are a man with a degree, working full-time in London.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide