Inching towards consensus on social mobility

A cross-party report describes Britain's failure to offer children reliable routes out of poverty bu

An intriguing parliamentary report was published this week. No, not that one.  Another one. Given the competition from the Media Select Committee’s agenda-hogging inquiry into malfeasant News International executives, the interim report of the All-Party Working Group on Social Mobility was unlikely to steal the headlines. It has nonetheless been reported in a few places and is worth a look.

The group was established last year to investigate why Britain seems so bad at providing reliable avenues for children from poorer backgrounds to get on in life. And the UK record on that front really is appalling, among the worst in the OECD group of industrialised countries. By some measures, British children’s future prospects are more firmly tethered by their parents’ income than their peers in the US, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Australia, Canada ... More dispiriting still, the situation appears to be getting worse. Today’s 40-somethings have progressed, as a cohort, less than the generation that preceded them. The life chances of children born today look substantially pre-determined by the circumstances of their birth. There are exceptions, of course, and tales of heroic - or mundane - emancipation from difficult circumstances. The point that the report makes, largely by aggregating data from a range of wider surveys, is that the pattern is soul-sapping immobility.

It is just an interim report, with wider conclusions due later in the year. The current document generally limits itself to the task of defining social mobility (not straightforward, since one generation superseding the last is a different business to one child out-performing his or her parents) and hinting at some of the areas where policy can intervene. It is framed as “Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility”. Inevitably, education is identified as the dominant theme and, specifically, the need to examine how the hold that private education has on top university places is really an expression of those schools’ capacity to churn out higher rates of top A-level grades. Once at university, state educated children with lower grades promptly catch up with or overtake their multiple-A-starred peers. There is also a heavy emphasis on intervention in the early years of children’s development, which ample research has shown to be the most effective way to influence life chances.  

There is always the risk in these reports of surrender to platitude and well-meaning abstraction. Naturally, everyone wants all children to get the best start in life. No-one celebrates entrenched cultural and institutional barriers to advancement. No-one advocates complacency or low aspiration. The group will go on to look at other factors affecting social mobility - “higher education and the role of contextual admissions; careers advice, mentoring, role models; enterprise; geography; disability, gender and ethnicity ...”  Conspicuously absent is any consideration of the impact of the current fiscal settlement on incomes, access to services etc. The distributional effects of austerity policies are hard to ignore in a discussion of future social mobility and practically impossible to debate in a parliamentary context without falling behind party lines. Likewise, the interim report contains only a brief and slightly squeamish reference to inequality:

Though they are clearly not the same thing, there is a recognised correlation between developed countries with high levels of mobility and high levels of income equality. Although it is hard to determine causality, there are a number of plausible reasons why high inequality reduces social mobility.

Indeed there are. But the ensuing conversation about potential remedies leads down a path so fraught with ideological and partisan passions that an all-party group scarcely dares tread there.

Given those limitations, the report and the group’s chairman Conservative MP Damian Hinds deserve credit for establishing some common ground on which an urgent debate should follow. The seven truths are:

1. The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between 0 and 3, primarily in the home

2. You can also break the cycle through education…

3. …the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching

4. But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings

5. University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key

6. But later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support

7. Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain

Each is fleshed out with supporting data and analysis. The full report is here.

 

British society is among the least mobile in the developed world

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

 “Given the loss of Scotland,it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing 50 seats in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.