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Laurie Penny: Willetts has reminded us that social mobility is a scam

The entire premise of social mobility rests on the blithe acceptance of social inequality.

If you want to slip an awkward truth past the guard dogs of Middle England, it helps to throw them a bone of contention. Last week, in a bid to set the terms of the new class debate, universities minister David Willetts MP casually mentioned that it might actually all be women's fault. Willetts's words, to the effect that mass female employment has been the 'biggest single factor' holding back working men, were tossed out just in time to cause maximum controversy in the Friday headlines and the Sunday columns. And off we all went, yapping after the bait, the liberal left and the chattering classes, barking and bickering between ourselves.

Have women sold out working men? Have working men sold out women? While the commetariat pondered these questions, everyone failed to draw attention to the solid, foundational fact that it is the rich who have sold out the poor, mortgaging their life chances to pay the debts of global finance.

Over the course of a fortnight, conservative spin-doctors have performed an exquisite feat of repositioning. Framing the initial debate as a whodunnit - which sex killed social mobility? - lays down two important principles as a given. Firstly, that social mobility is the highest possible public good; secondly, that whoever is responsible for the nosedive in social mobility since the 1970s, it definitely wasn't the free market.

Willetts's notion that "feminism has trumped egalitarianism" holds no water. Ask any unemployed labourer in any of the thousands of northern towns eviscerated by Thatcher's maceration of industry what's really holding them back, and chances are they won't say 'women'. The delusion that women selfishly taking the jobs and university places that should have gone to working class men, and then even more selfishly refusing to sleep with them - a practice that Willetts delicately calls 'assortive mating' - distracts us from the greater truth that the social mobility experiment of the mid-century is over.

Today, children born to working-class parents are overwhelmingly likely to remain working class. Children who go to low-achieving schools usually end up in low-paying jobs, especially in former industrial towns. Wage repression has meant that it is now nearly impossible to raise a family on a single person's wage, meaning that most couples with children are obliged to work two full-time jobs between them. Labour has become more precarious, and structural unemployment has continued to rise. Top jobs in politics, journalism, law, management, business and finance are held in trust for the sons and daughters of the wealthy, as opportunities go to those who can afford to work as unpaid interns or, increasingly, to pay for vital work experience. In fact, like nearly every other journalist under 35, the main reason I have this platform to talk to you now is that I'm a beneficiary of the private-school-and-intern system.

All of that was the case even before the June budget. Now, an increase in regressive taxes that hit the poorest hardest, a threefold increase in university fees that places higher education beyond the reach of many, and the withdrawal of the few remaining benefits, such as Education maintenance Allowance, that really did help young men and young women of all ages to cross class boundaries, have lacerated the ailing proto-corpse of social mobility in Britain. The government's suggestion that sending a few civil servants to give motivational talks in schools will somehow solve the problem is a the equivalent of smearing a little ointment on a gushing arterial neck-wound.

The cuts are already too fast, and too deep: the body politic is bleeding out. The government has begun to panic, desperate to stem the flow of public opinion in the best way it knows how : by appealing to the self-interest of the sharp-elbowed middle classes. middle England cares about social mobility. middle england wants its sons and daughters to be wealthy. Unfortunately, its sons and daughters are currently sliding onto the graduate scrapheap, stuck on the dole or in dead-end jobs, or tearing through the streets of London in masks and hoods, smashing up banks. This is not good news for coalition approval ratings.

If the Tories are to retain power, public discourse has to be shifted, and it has to be shifted fast. Nobody who has so much as squinted at growth projections could claim that social mobility is likely to do anything but decline in this country for the forseeable future, but that's not what matters to the government. What matters is the appearance of concern, a shadow-play of interest in helping the "squeezed middle" - a catch-all term for electorally crucial swing voters - rise through the ranks.

A brief shuffle through the social mobility strategy turns up glossy pages of utter vacuity, full of platitudes, vague half-policies, disclaimers explaining that government can't do all or indeed really any of the work, and doleful insistence that 'there is no magic wand we can wave'.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the document, however, is the opening premise: "a fair society is...a society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise." Social mobility is apparently this government's "principal" social concern. But are fairness and social mobility truly synonymous?

Social mobility, lest we forget, is not the same thing as equality. On the contrary: the entire premise of social mobility rests on the blithe acceptance of social inequality, so long as a handful of have-nots are able to scale the ladder of privilege. In a world where wealth and resources are finite, not everyone can be a billionaire. The encouraging notion that anyone can 'make it' relies on the unspoken assumption that most people, ultimately, won't.

That vision of unfettered self-improvement is the lie that has sustained free-market capitalism over a century of ruthless expansion. It is the lie that neoliberal governments across the developed world have used to justify the destruction of welfare, healthcare and education, the decimation of labour and the entrenchment of inequality along divisions of race, class and gender. It's a lie that convinces most when it is most manifestly false: indeed, recent studies have shown that in America, the more social mobility decreases, the more desperate voters are to believe that 'anyone can make it if they try.' It is the cross-continental American Dream, the dream of enterprise as redemption, the dream that, in the words of the late George Carlin, "you have to be asleep to believe."

Let's return to David Willetts, whose opening salvo makes the bigoted assumptions behind our understanding of "social mobility" plain. There are a finite number of places 'at the top,' for which citizens of all classes are supposed to compete. Middle- and upper-middle class men have first dibs on those places, and after that, middle-class women and working-class men are allowed to slug it out for the scraps. Working class women rarely get a look-in, but that's social mobility for you.

Social mobility is a scam. It's a scam that is useful to governments implementing austerity programmes: after all, if anyone can make it, anyone who fails to do so must be personally at fault. Social mobility, however, is not an adequate substitute for social justice.

Which brings us neatly back to feminism, and to the uncomfortable admission that David Willetts does, in fact, have a point. Mass female employment has affected social mobility. Feminism is nowhere near as significant a factor in the stagnation of social mobility as the destruction of industry or wage repression. The fact remains, however, that if one accepts an unequal system whereby only a handful of elites make it into well-paying professions, and if one also accepts a feminism which settles for cramming a few extra women into those elite jobs, then some people are going to be nudged off the podium. What we have, to paraphrase Willetts, is neither feminism nor egalitarianism. What we have is a ruddy mess of recrimination and sharpened elbows.

Willetts has a point, and he is using that point to stab innocent bystanders in the back. Along with most of Westminster, Willetts has mistaken bourgeois feminism, which merely boosts the life chances of wealthy women within an unequal system, for feminism proper, which demands redistribution of work, wealth and power in order to deliver equality. Along with most of the country, Willetts has mistaken social mobility, which merely boosts the life chances of a few middle-class aspirants, for social justice. As inequality soars and the standard of living in Britain drops through the floor, those mistakes are about to cost us all very dearly.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.