Show Hide image

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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred