The meritocracy myth – what ever happened to the old dream of a classless society?

The evidence is clear: more equal societites are happier than unequal ones. Other countries achieve it - Britain must do better.

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Equality of opportunity, when combined with gross inequality of outcome, is the worst possible recipe for a harmonious society. It engenders in the successful a sense that they have earned what they get, which transposes into a desire to expand still further their share of the national cake. Meanwhile, the unsuccessful believe that it is their fault that they are poor (as opposed to being the fault of ill birth or bad luck) and so they feel the weight of moral as well as of material failure. Such a society will be prone to all the diseases of human discontent: crime, jealousy, fracture, civil discord and even civil strife. It is therefore surprising that equality of opportunity is today the central creed of both Britain’s main national political parties. Indeed, in the words of the social historian David Kynaston  (Guardian of 6th December) : “social mobility has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie causes to which it is almost rude not to sign up.”

This faith in meritocracy is surprising for the Tory party. The Tory party used to be the party of the aristocracy and of tradition. It was long sceptical about opportunity and took a century or two to be reconciled to democracy.

Today the Tory party trumpets its belief in meritocracy. Boris Johnson describes it in a graphic phrase as” allowing the right cornflakes to get to the top of the packet”, though he is sharp-elbowing his way up the Kellogs box despite his Eton education. So too his fellow alumni David Cameron who said it was the job of the government to raise the aspirations of people from poor backgrounds to get top jobs in public life.

But faith in meritocracy is even more surprising for the Labour party. Labour was traditionally wary of both legs of the equal opportunities/unequal outcomes combination.

So far as equal opportunities were concerned, it did not see opportunity as an individual right but as a collective right. The aim was not to raise each individual out of his or her class but to raise that class as a whole. This was one of the pillars of the comprehensive revolution, though that was also defended as promoting social mobility.

So far as greater equality of outcome was concerned, this was central to Labour’s thinking. Thus Anthony Crosland: “By equality we meant more than a meritocratic society of equal opportunities, in which the greatest rewards would go to those with the most fortunate genetic endowment and family background—what Rawls has subsequently called the "democratic" as opposed to the "liberal" conception . . . We also meant more than a simple (not that it has proved simple in practice) redistribution of income. We wanted a wider social equality embracing also the distribution of property, the educational system, social-class relationships, power and privilege in industry— indeed all that was enshrined in the age old socialist dream of a more "classless society".

Compare this with the modern Labour party inventing academies—mechanisms designed to give control of state schools as well as paying schools to the meritocrats and middle classes—and lashing out at bog-standard comprehensives. Despite Ed Miliband’s proclaimed belief in equality, Labour today remains tentative and nervous about measures to tackle the sumptuary wealth of the successful. It is not the same party.

The Labour debate on equality of opportunity has its modern origins in a book now most famous for its title: The Rise of the Meritocracy (Thames and Hudson 1958). Its author was Michael Young, later a Labour peer, but then known inter alia as the author of Labour’s 1945 election manifesto.

Young was an extraordinary creative figure. He wrote the opinion-shaping Family and Kinship in East London (with Peter Willmot). He founded seminal social institutions—the National Consumer Council, the Open University, Which? His ego was not entirely disguised by his eccentric modesty—he once invited the author to lunch which consisted of one slice of spam and one off a sliced white loaf with margarine.

Meritocracy is similarly eccentric. Young paints a society of the future where position and reward are allocated according to measured IQ. He quotes George Bernard Shaw:

This haphazard Mobocracy . . . must be replaced by a democratic aristocracy: that is by the dictatorship, not of the whole proletariat, but of that five per cent of it capable of conceiving the job and pioneering in the drive towards its divine goal.

"The rate of social progress depends upon the degree to which power is matched with intelligence", says Young’s narrator, circa 2035. "Britain could not be a caste society if it was to survive as a great nation . . . the country had to make better use of its human material . . . Civilisation does not depend upon the stolid mass, the home moyen sensual but upon the creative minority, the innovator, who with one stroke can save the labour of 10,000…"

The Rise of the Meritocracy is a satire of the Swiftian kind aimed at mocking the social developments of which it disapproves. But today, meritocracy is certainly not regarded as an insulting word to use of a society: rather the reverse. A ruling class based on meritocracy is the great goal. Peter Hennessy in his engaging essay Establishment and Meritocracy describes meritocracy and the ruling establishment as “a pair of trains running on parallel tracks throughout the postwar society taking on extra passengers and baggage by the decade.”

No-one today dares doubt the value of meritocracy. The prevalent concern is that progress towards it has stalled. "A remarkable consensus has merged in political and also in media circles’, says the Oxford sociologist John Goldthorpe ‘that social mobility is in decline and has in fact reached an exceptionally low level".

If this were so it would have serious consequences.  Indeed the government has established a Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, chaired by Alan Milburn—a former Labour cabinet minister— charged with analysing and finding remedies for lack of social mobility and its alleged implications for child poverty.

Mr Milburn has warned that Britain is at best "flatlining" on social mobility.

There is no consensus amongst academic sociologists that we live in a society with low mobility. In 2006, the journal Political Quarterly published a volume, ‘The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy’, devoted to Young’s book. It contains an important chapter by Peter Saunders, a long-serving academic at Sussex University. Saunders asked: "how meritocratic is Britain?" He defined a perfectly meritocratic society as one where "each generation would be recruited to different class positions on the basis of individual intelligence". He says that in fact intelligence is by far the most important factor in determining the subsequent intellectual and occupational fate of individuals. In statistical terms it explains half the variance: "nothing else comes close".

This suggests that we are a society which is quite socially mobile already. If that is so, why is so much attention being devoted to increasing social mobility further? Why do we behave as if, in the words of a speech of Tony Blair’s in 2002, increased social mobility is "the great force for social equality in dynamic market economies"? The name of that speaker gives a clue, for if you are uninterested in increasing equality of outcomes, as Blair essentially was, increasing social mobility appears to be a plausible substitute.

Whether Sanders is right or not about how social mobile Britain actually is, is that mobility increasing, “flatlining” or decreasing? An influential group of academic economists, led by Steve Machin, argue that earnings of individuals today are strongly associated with their family incomes when they were younger, and furthermore that this association was stronger for men and women in their early 30s in 1970 than it was for corresponding individuals in 1958. This suggests that economic mobility is low and that if anything, it is declining—and of course there are strong links between economic mobility and social mobility.

Goldthorpe disputes this. He argues that social mobility has shown “no decline” and indeed that there has been some increase in mobility due to the increase in the number of middle class jobs, some of which people of working class origins have filled.

However, the rise of some from the working class is not in itself the sole measure of mobility. There is another facet to that—one which gets far less attention- the percentage of scions of middle and upper-class people who end up in the working class. And here there is no sign of an increase. This accords with casual observation: middle-class dinner parties at which only a very occasional parent bravely confesses that their child has not yet reached middle-class status—she is "still finding herself"—while others sit smug in the knowledge that their kids are teachers or bankers or lawyers. All that has happened is that there is more room at (or near) the top.

These facts ought to change policy at the very least to be more realistic about the possibilities for increasing social mobility, in the sense of equalising the chances of people from every class getting the best jobs. Instead the chorus of the cheer group for social mobility swells ever louder. The Sutton Trust, an educational charity devoted to social mobility; Mr Milburn; and even the prime minister—like Tony Blair—see the answer as "education, education, education".

 It is true that upgrading education might improve mobility in a round-about way. If Britain had a better educated labour force, the percentage of middle-class jobs in its labour market might rise, giving more opportunities for people to move into this bracket.

But the modern meritocrats want more than that. They believe that if you give more education to those doing less well under the current system, more of them will rise to the top, even if the top has not expanded. Hence a long series of initiatives designed (or meant to be designed) to help the educationally deprived—Sure Start, for example, and the pupil premium.

Nothing wrong with them. But have they achieved, and will they achieve, what they are supposed to achieve—a more meritocratic society? Here is Goldthorpe’s verdict: “the part that can be played by educational policy appears far more limited. What happens to absolute rates will be primarily determined, as it has been in the past, by changes in the occupational and class structures.”

So here we have the prosaic truth. Social structure is not easy to modify. Social mobility in modern capitalist society is more a constant, something that does not much change, than a variable, readily increased by policies designed to increase it. If you want more people to be upwardly mobile, you are probably better to try to change the structure of jobs in society, so that there are more middle-class occupations available, than to try to increase the proportion of those available that go to those from less fortunate backgrounds.

Given this downbeat conclusion, why then is mobility the paramount goal of all Britain’s political parties? Because it enables them to cop out from the real challenge; that of creating a society where outcomes are more equal. To be even in principle worthwhile, meritocracy has to be combined with a generally more equal society.

For what truly is increasing, in Britain as in most—though not all—modern advanced economies, is economic inequality. What has changed is the share of income and wealth going to the very top people. The statistics on wealth distribution are not very satisfactory, but doing the best we can, we see that for most of the past 100 years the distribution of wealth has been getting more equal. In 1923 the top 1 per cent of the population owned 61 per cent of marketable assets. By 1976, this had dropped dramatically so they owned only 21 per cent. However, inequality began to rise again in the 1990s, increasing the share of personal assets of the top 1 per cent from 17 per cent to 23 per cent, a rise likely to have continued since.

Moreover, this growth in inequality, as it has grown in scale, has also changed in nature. It was a commonplace in Labour circles in the 1960s and 1970s to pooh-pooh the importance of cutting back the growth in incomes at the very top on the grounds that the total sum involved was immaterial. Even if you confiscated the income of the very well off— a policy which came firmly under Crosland’s rubric of not being easy in practice—it would make little difference to the incomes of anyone else. Their wealth might be provocative, but it was not generally impoverishing anyone else. Indeed the income they helped create was percolating down to the rest of society.

That is no longer the case. According to Stewart Wood, an academic who advises Ed Miliband:

Trickle-down is not working . . . In 1979 the top 1 per cent received under 6 per cent of Britain’s personal income; in 2005 they received over 14 per cent. From 1980 to 2010 22 per cent of every extra pound earned in the UK went into the pockets of the top 1 per cent In other countries, for example the United States, a plausible view of what has happened is that average wages and earnings have failed to rise at all. The whole of the increment to national income and wealth is being commandeered by the super-rich.

One natural response to this would be to attack their wealth. Once upon a time, the imposition of a wealth tax was a mainstream proposal of Labour’s democratic socialist left. It is reflected, if palely, in the party’s present support for a "mansion tax", as originally proposed by the Lib Dems on those whose houses are worth more than £2 million.

Some think the origins of the problem lie in corporate governance, and in particular the willingness of company remuneration committees to grant huge increases to top executives. So measures were introduced to increase shareholders’ influence over pay. They have proved wholly ineffective.

The practical difficulties of cutting back with regard to the rich are considerable. Meanwhile they now enjoy not only growing wealth but greater power. If we look back to the 1960s and 70s, the leaders of the great corporations (sometimes, of course, they were nationalised corporations) were essentially grey figures who kept their heads down. Today they are both more exotic—think for example of the leaders of the great IT companies such as Microsoft—and more interested in political power. Russian oligarchs follow the Murdoch tradition and buy newspapers, through which they can project their world view. The rich and their companies hire regiments of public affairs advisers who devote themselves to lobbying politicians and promoting the views of their paymasters.

They can be sure of sympathetic support from journalists. Those in the national press, who are of course in the top few per cent of the income distribution, think of themselves and their friends as middle-income earners, and therefore attack anyone who would tax them more heavily.

Fortunately in Britain the rich cannot yet buy political parties (as they can and have in America), thanks to our restrictions on party spending on television advertising. Still, it is a brave politician who decries (except in abstract terms) their wealth, hence Peter Mandelson’s oft-quoted joke about his being ‘intensely relaxed about the filthy rich’.

So where have we ended up? We have ended up with a society disfigured by gross inequalities—not perhaps as gross as those of the pre-democratic era, but much grosser than those in the social democratic postwar era. If those inequalities are to be tolerated the population generally has to be convinced that everyone has an equal chance of these riches, provided they have the necessary ability, the necessary application and (in some versions) the necessary luck.

To this has been added another more toxic element: that of attaching blame to those who end up at the bottom. Their plight, so we increasingly hear, is not just the fault of inadequate government policies to promote mobility, for example through the education system. It owes much to their own failings or those of their parents: mums who insist on being single, don’t work, and watch television; diets rich in sugar and fat and lifestyles short of exercise; an addiction to the internet, and particularly the pornographic offerings it provides. Thus in modern guise re-emerges the old stratagem of the haves. It is the fault of the poor that they are poor.

The great American sociologist Daniel Bell was a defender of meritocracy. But he wanted a “well-tempered meritocracy” in which the winners respected the losers and ensured they were well looked after – meritocracy and justice combined.

Today’s society is an ill-tempered meritocracy, with the rich and their allies in full cry against the poor. The new anti-benefit mood in public opinion, fuelled by TV shows about "scroungers", now has the politicians competing in a race to the bottom on benefits.

So how does it feel to be poor? The material disadvantages are obvious, but less obvious are the psychological effects. You come to believe that your plight is your fault. So your self-esteem is low. No-one is offering a political response to your plight, let alone a collective response in the way the labour movement used to offer it. So you are left to be miserable, in a kind of nihilist vacuum. This is nasty for you but serves the interests of the haves well, since such people are unlikely to get involved in political action against them.

This effect is compounded by the decapitation of the working class. Before universal education, and still more before the growth of higher education, people could be poor, able and thrusting. Now, however, most people with energy and ability will find a way of escaping from the bottom rungs of society. You do not now get many Nye Bevan’s or Ernest Bevin’s.

Observing today’s House of Commons compared with that of forty years ago, I have no doubt that the average quality of MPs has risen, and that of Labour MPs has risen especially. However, there is an attached cost; most of those MPs (like Crosland, but not like Bevan or Bevin) are themselves creatures of privilege—of educational privilege, at least, if not of social class privilege. They are the beneficiaries of meritocracy. So why should they not support it? Why should they object if their party supports it? For one reason only: that meritocracy is a sham version of the real mission which should animate the Labour party, that of moving towards a society characterised by greater social and economic equality.

This is a revised and shortened version of an article that first appeared in Political Quarterly.

David Lipsey is a British journalist, the Sunday Times, the Guardian and as the Economist's Bagehot. He sits as a Labour peer in the House of Lords.

This article appears in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west