According to a sizable cadre of the wonkerati, social mobility will be at the heart of Labour's next half-decade. If the first term was about economic stability and the second about public service reform, the third, we are told, will be about meritocracy or "life chances". And as nobody seems to know who the prime minister will be in the third term, it is worth noting that the ambition to create a meritocratic or "classless" society is one shared by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Indeed, at least rhetorically, it is shared across the political spectrum. Michael Howard's recent "I believe" document also supports equality of opportunity, and states that "people must have every opportunity to fulfil their potential", an ambition so bland it is impossible to imagine anyone opposing it.
What do these warm words really mean? And are they achievable - or even desirable? Howard probably means that people should not be discriminated against. Those on the Labour side, however, will have more ambitious ideas in mind - for example, that every individual should have an equal prospect of success in life, regardless of social and economic background. This sounds an uncontroversial goal. Yet it faces insurmountable practical, political and ethical obstacles. That does not make it wrong to strive for wider opportunities. But progressive politics requires an equivalent or greater emphasis on other ambitions, too, including a more equal distribution of rewards. To put too many eggs into the basket of social mobility would be a profound political error.
We must first acknowledge that full equality of opportunity is impossible without policies too draconian to contemplate. It is true that within the past half-century, there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of people born into working-class homes who become middle-class adults. In technical terms, "absolute social mobility" has been increasing. But this has been almost entirely a result of the expansion of the middle class, of there being more "room at the top". If we take men aged 54-63, roughly 45 per cent have ended up in the same social class as their fathers or in an equivalent class, 42 per cent have been upwardly mobile and just 13 per cent have dropped down the social hierarchy. These figures are possible only in an era of embourgeoisement.
That's the good news. Now for the bad. First, this increase in absolute social mobility has levelled out over the past couple of decades for reasons which are not entirely clear. Second, the gap between a middle-class child's chances of becoming a middle-class adult and a working-class child's chances is as wide as ever. In other words, working-class children have more opportunities, but nothing like equal opportunities. "Relative social mobility" is unchanged. John Goldthorpe, the Oxford academic who dominates this debate, points out that this gap in opportunity between the classes varies little between developed nations - even those with radically different cultures and policies - and little over time.
"The orthodoxy is that relative social mobility is what really matters from a social-justice point of view, but that it is pretty impervious to policy," says Jonathan Gershuny, director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. "In other words, there is really nothing to be done."
Not that this has stopped left-of-centre politicians trying. Postwar Labour ministers have always seen education as the engine of social mobility. A direct line runs from Tony Crosland's promise to close "every fucking grammar school in the country" up to Tony Blair's promises to expand higher education. The assumption is that wider, more universal education will act as a leveller of social opportunities.
The assumption has thus far proved wrong. Comprehensive education, which should be considered a success on many other grounds, did not dent relative social immobility. Better-off kids still did better, either within the comprehensives or in the private sector. And although the expansion of higher education has allowed more children from less affluent backgrounds to pick up a BA, the children of the middle class have entered in greater numbers still - so that the difference between a butcher's child and a barrister's child in their chances of going to university hasn't budged.
Labour's leading lights are now focusing on the early childhood years, which have a dramatic impact on later life chances. So an expanded Sure Start scheme, childcare, nursery schools, parenting classes and higher benefits for new parents will all be on the party's future agenda. "For a long time, the scholastic view held sway that school-years education would lift social mobility," says Phil Collins, director of the Social Market Foundation. "After a generation of trying, it is clear this is not the case." So now, he says, we see a rush to pre-school education.
Many of these initiatives are worthwhile, but in terms of social mobility we should not hold our breath. If compulsory secondary education, comprehensive schools and an enormous expansion in higher education have failed to narrow the opportunity gap, the pre-school programme is unlikely to do so, either.
The hard truth is that advantage is passed on through a variety of social, economic and cultural mechanisms, many of which are beyond the reach of public policy. The most obvious example is the family, and more particularly the inegalitarian tendency of parents to try to help their own children. Parents with greater resources - financial, physical, intellectual or emotional - will give their children a better start in life. And in general, policy-makers want parents to be engaged with their children's prospects. As the Oxford philosopher Adam Swift has written: "There is a tension between equality of opportunity, on the one hand, and respect for the family, on the other, which few would resolve simply by abolishing the latter."
There is an inescapable conflict between the goal of equality of opportunity and the desirability of parents caring about their children's well-being. Most of us carry this contradiction within our own heads, believing two incompatible things at the same time. If a pollster were to ask whether we think "people should have an equal chance of success in life, regardless of their social background", most of us would probably say yes. But few would agree that "the state should criminalise the reading of bedtime stories by parents".
In the late Michael Young's satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, the revolution comes when the government proposes to remove children from poor families because true equality of opportunity will be otherwise impossible. Assuming that Labour baulks at this or even at less radical approaches - parental performance league tables? - it looks as if the early-years drive is the last-chance saloon for the state's attempts to improve relative social mobility.
Such recognition of the limits of the state might come as a relief to some. After all, the government's role in promoting mobility has been much less than is commonly assumed. "The dynamics of market-led growth have done far more for social mobility than any legislation," argues Collins. But admitting a large degree of defeat on relative social mobility does not mean packing up and going home. It should instead allow policy-makers to focus their attention on other kinds of success.
First, we should be less sniffy about the rise in absolute social mobility. "If you put everybody in a better place," says Gershuny, "you don't need to put some people in a worse place in order to improve the life chances of the least advantaged." Higher education is an example. Imagine that in society A, children from poor and rich backgrounds both have a 1 per cent chance of going to university. Imagine that in society B, 50 per cent of poor kids and 80 per cent of rich kids go to college. Only a head-banging, bring-back-the-Berlin-Wall egalitarian would prefer society A over B.
The thrust of economic policy must be to continue to create more "room at the top" through encouraging the spread of skilled jobs and automating or "offshoring" unskilled ones. Part of this agenda might be to create more time in the lives of the stressed rich so that they can do their own childcare, gardening and laundry, rather than contracting it all out to lower-skilled staff. But the main need is for greater support for the infrastructures that underpin highly skilled work, such as science, information technology and higher education. Absolute social mobility has probably stalled over the past 20 years because the loss of many skilled manual jobs during the 1980s took a critical rung out of the occupational ladder. But given that all the labour-market forecasts are for continued rapid expansion in higher-skilled jobs, we can hope that the top might become roomier, offering brighter prospects for poorer children.
Second, we should value the availability of opportunities, even if they are not always taken up. "What we care about is not whether people from different origins have the same statistical chance of ending up in particular destinations," writes Adam Swift in the European Sociological Review, "but whether they have the same opportunity to do so." There is any number of reasons why the daughter of a butcher might be less likely to end up as a doctor than the daughter of a lawyer, not all of which are to do with differential opportunities. Personal preferences might play an important part. Relative social mobility can at best be a very rough proxy for whether people are "achieving their full potential". Some might decide that their potential is fulfilled in ways other than upward social mobility. Policy should create opportunities, not mandate their seizure.
The third challenge is to push egalitarian objectives up the agenda. Egalitarians and meritocrats clash frequently in the political arena, the former worrying about the distribution of prizes and the latter about ensuring they are won fairly. Meritocrats are in the ascendancy, from Michael Howard's "believing" that "one person's poverty is not caused by another's wealth" to Tony Blair's being "relaxed" about how much David Beckham earns or how many millionaires Britain creates. The basic new Labour philosophy of social justice has been to tackle poverty, promote opportunity and ignore the gap between rich and poor.
In some ways we are now in the worst of worlds, where mobility is highly constrained but people - especially the elite - have convinced themselves that they live in a meritocracy, so that yawning inequalities are morally acceptable. This is exactly what Michael Young warned against. Criticising new Labour for abandoning equality in favour of the "insidious" idea of meritocracy, he wrote: "If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get . . . So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves." The US provides a salutary warning. The belief in the "American dream" of a mobile, meritocratic society leads Americans to tolerate much higher levels of inequality than exist in, say, Japan or Norway, societies that have more social mobility, but fewer illusions.
The truth is that Labour needs to be simultaneously worried about levels of social mobility and about the distribution of rewards, precisely because success will always be limited on both sides. In a society of complete equality, concerns about mobility would be fewer; similarly, if we knew for sure that rewards were being allocated strictly on grounds of ability rather than background, resulting inequalities would be more acceptable. But because neither situation is possible, social democrats have to think about the balance between the two objectives. Social justice requires not a choice between equality and mobility, but a continuing - and necessarily only partially successful - war on both fronts.
The fourth and final challenge is to rescue the concept of "merit" from the market. When meritocrats talk about rewards flowing from merit, the rewarding mechanism is typically assumed to be the market, especially the market for labour. But the market can reward only certain kinds of narrowly defined merit, and in particular, what economists and business people increasingly call "human capital". (The language itself betrays the prevalence of market-generated versions of value: we now also have "social", "intellectual", and even "gender" capital.)
Charles Clarke's tirade against medieval history was objectionable not only for the posturing philistinism of the Education Secretary's comments, but also for the underlying sentiment that the value of an intellectual endeavour should be determined by the demand and supply curves of the market - a view that underpins his whole approach to education. The reason peripatetic music has fallen by the wayside, while business studies courses flourish, is that an ability to play the cello adds no direct value to the economy unless you play for a professional orchestra.
At the same time, the erosion of class consciousness (if not of class) has made wealth a more powerful indicator of social position. Whereas income used to help social scientists denote status, it has now come close to defining it as far as most people are concerned. But merit of all kinds - artistic, intellectual, social - exists entirely outside of the pricing mechanisms of the market.
The danger with new Labour's simultaneous embrace of social mobility and of market forces is that it uses the latter to judge the former. But there is more to a meritorious society than economic productivity, and more to mobility than money. The point of a progressive politics is to help cultivate the "arts of life", rather than simply the human-capital demands of the economy - to create opportunities not only for poor people to become richer, but for us all to lead richer lives.