The City of London is trying to counter its "male, pale and stale" image. Photo: Getty
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How the Square Mile could be an unexpected counter to our “Downton Abbey-style society”

After recent reports that Britain is "deeply elitist", the City of London insists that social mobility is being championed where you would least expect.

Hot the heels of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission study which concluded that the UK is “deeply elitist”, the TUC’s Frances O’Grady has added that we are becoming a “Downton Abbey-style society”. These headline-grabbing comments make for depressing reading, but only tell part of the story. I firmly believe that momentum for social mobility is gathering pace in places people would least suspect.

The aforementioned study paints the picture that the top professions are occupied by the “male, pale and stale”. The financial Square Mile business district is of course not immune to such criticism, but some of the most exciting initiatives to engage young people from deprived backgrounds are, perhaps unexpectedly, happening in the City. Whether the motivation is altruism or just business sense, the City recognises its important role in developing and sourcing talent from some of London’s poorest communities.

Within the Square Mile, we are surrounded by London boroughs like Tower Hamlets where almost half the young people live below the poverty line. There is not only a social inclusion argument to be made, but our long-term economic sustainability is left vulnerable unless we improve diversity and cast the net wider in the search for talent.

Recent reports suggest we have a huge mountain to climb when it comes to levelling the playing field, but I’m reassured that there is the appetite for real change in the business sector. The most successful impact often occurs from multi-organisational partnerships, tackling the issue on a variety of fronts. More businesses need to work with schools to improve dramatically, the life chances of young people. Social mobility starts with young people actually envisaging themselves in top careers and having their expectations raised by teachers and business leaders.

Unfortunately, there are still too many young people who live in boroughs like Tower Hamlets who see the impressive City skyline from their bedroom windows but fail to realise the opportunities available for them. But I’m happy to say that every day I see and hear examples of this reality shifting. Firms like KPMG, our co-sponsors of the City Academy Hackney, provide one-to-one mentoring for the pupils to enhance their wider learning development. Schemes such as City Careers Open House, give local schools the opportunity to spend a day at a City-based organisation, including Bank of England, Eversheds, PricewaterhouseCooper and UBS. They meet employees and find out more about what a City career entails. Around 64% of participating students said the experience gave them much higher career aspirations.

Other established City firms like ING and Deutsche Bank are offering more paid internships to pupils from London’s poorest areas, drawing in a diverse range of talent not just attracting pupils who can afford to work for free. Lloyd’s of London championed a programme that reached 3,000 young people in Tower Hamlets – supporting students with literacy and numeracy, with the key aim of boosting employability from a young age. It also set up a bursary fund giving bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds access to finance (a common barrier to social mobility) to help with university living costs.

Businesses in the City and elsewhere are naturally concerned with hiring the best person for the job, but they have to get creative if they want the widest talent base. Withers LLP, a global law firm has just piloted an innovative work experience scheme. It targets young unemployed parents in Islington, an area with 15,000 households where no-one works. Opening up its doors to an often over-looked group has proved valuable all-round.

I’m confident that real change is pushing ahead in the City and beyond. If we want to maintain and develop our position as a global economic power, we need all our best players on the pitch. Social mobility is not just nice to have – it is an imperative.

Mark Boleat is the policy chairman of the City of London Corporation

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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

Some MPs – including some vocal critics of Corbyn – are queuing up to get back in the shadow cabinet (one, Sarah Champion, returned during the leadership contest). Chi Onwurah, who spoke out on Corbyn’s management style, never left. But others, most notably the challenger Owen Smith, are resigning themselves to life on the back benches. 

So what is a once-rising-star MP to do? The most obvious choice is to throw yourself into the issue the Corbyn leadership doesn’t want to talk about – Brexit. The most obvious platform to do so on is a select committee. Chuka Umunna has founded Vote Leave Watch, a campaign group, and is running to replace Keith Vaz on the Home Affairs elect committee. Emma Reynolds, a former shadow Europe minister, is running alongside Hilary Benn to sit on the newly-created Brexit committee. 

Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.