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

Mark Boleat, Policy and Resources Chairman, City of London Corporation.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.