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19 May 2021

In defence of meritocracy

Why an idea dismissed as an excuse for elitism offers Labour’s only path to victory. 

By Adrian Wooldridge

The Labour Party has the smell of a dying animal. It has not only lost its heartland – first Scotland and then the north – it is losing its sense of purpose as well. What is the party for? Defending the traditional working class? Celebrating the rainbow alliance of ethnic and sexual minorities? Taking Britain back into Europe? Or making the best of a bad Brexit? The only answer to the question that we get from the party’s high command is that Labour is in the business of saving Labour politicians from destruction.

The party’s problems are so great that it can’t be revived by more professional politics – by an improved PR machine or even by a more inspiring leader. Labour needs a wholesale reinvention: a reinvention so dramatic that it shocks people into taking another look at the party, and so thorough that it breathes new life into what is beginning to look like a carcass.

The best way to do this is getting back to basics: revisiting the themes that made the party great and reviving and reinventing them for a changed country. The Labour Party was created to represent working-class people in parliament. It now consists overwhelmingly of middle-class professionals and has done nothing to recruit members of the new working class of precariously employed service-sector workers. (Keir Starmer’s attempt to demote Angela Rayner, one of the few people in the leadership who has been in that world, as a care worker, is bizarre.) The original party was animated by an overwhelming sense of pride in work, community and country. The People’s History Museum in Manchester holds the earliest trade union banner, made for the Tin Plate Workers’ Society in 1821. Emblazoned in one corner is a Union flag. Now, the ascendant metropolitan wing of the party accuses traditional Labour voters of “racism”, “heteronormativity”, “xenophobia” and the rest of it. The party was driven by a desire to bring security into a world of casual labour and fissiparous contracts. But it has done little to reach out to the new working class that is growing alongside the old one.

These subjects all have their champions in Labour-world. For all his faults, Jeremy Corbyn at least made an effort to recruit working-class candidates. The Labour MP Jon Cruddas has just published a book titled The Dignity of Labour. Claire Ainsley, one of Starmer’s most influential advisers, has written extensively on the new working class and what it needs to become more secure. A glance at Labour history suggests there is an idea there for the taking. That idea is meritocracy: the belief that individuals should be treated according to their own merits rather than their family connections or membership of various pre-determined groups, and that the state’s job is to build a ladder of opportunity so that the able can get ahead regardless of where they are born.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

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Calling for a return to meritocracy might sound perverse at a time when the (mainly left-wing) intelligentsia is churning out books with titles such as The Tyranny of Merit (Michael Sandel, 2020), The Meritocracy Trap (Daniel Markovits, 2019) and Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century (David Goodhart, 2020). It might also sound politically naive after yet another series of elections in England in which less well-educated voters have had another go at kicking the credentialled elite that has left them to rot. Then there are the powers of the left’s various vested interests – starting with well- entrenched voting blocs such as the teachers’ unions that loathe anything that smacks of tests and targets, but also extending to new groups such as Black Lives Matter, which believe meritocracy is used as an excuse for entrenching white power.

Yet these objections are less convincing than they sound at first. The current revolt against the meritocracy is being driven by hyper-educated parents worried about getting their children into elite universities. Working-class voters are fed up with the credentialled elite not because they don’t value education but because they think they’ve had the value of local education removed. Boris Johnson is rightly emphasising the importance of building local technical colleges. As for Labour’s various vested interests, a war with them might be exactly what it needs if it is to shake up people’s perceptions of what the party is about.

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The case for meritocracy

Meritocracy is the most successful big idea the Labour Party has ever embraced, far more successful than planning (which turned into a dead end) or collective bargaining (which led to overmighty trade unions). The meritocratic idea forged Labour as a dynamic new party in the early 20th century by giving workers, whether they worked principally by hand or with their brain, a cause to unite around. The idea defined the party during its glory days after the Second World War – and defined it again during the reprise of those glory days under Tony Blair.

By contrast, a revolt against the meritocratic idea has twice destroyed Labour as a governing party: the first time the party abandoned meritocracy in the 1970s Margaret Thatcher captured the concept for the right, and then in the 2010s first Ed Miliband and then Corbyn abandoned it for their egalitarian dream. The party is currently caught in an anti-meritocratic trap: it is identified with a woke egalitarianism unpopular with the public, particularly with the northern working-class voters it needs to win back if it is to regain a majority, and it is unable to claim any credit for the successes of Tony Blair’s educational reform. The party certainly can’t break out of this trap without a fight, but, as Blair demonstrated so convincingly, a fight is sometimes the only way of forcing the public to give the party another look.

Merit and the rise of Labour

The meritocratic idea served three vital purposes during the party’s formative days in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It dealt with the most common objection to the expansion of the state – that it is inherently inefficient – by suggesting that the state can be even more efficient than the private sector so long as it selects people by ability and promotes them on merit. It provided a cause that workers by hand and brain could rally around: for all their differences they could agree that they would be better at running the country than degenerate aristocrats. And it united the new socialist cause with the old liberal one. Liberalism had been a revolt against the old world of patronage and corruption. The early socialists suggested that this revolt could only come to fruition if the state provided education and healthcare.

The intellectual founders of the Labour Party (and indeed of the New Statesman) – Sidney and Beatrice Webb – were meritocrats to the core. They objected to laissez-faire capitalism because it was both unjust and inefficient: unjust because the idle rich flourished regardless of merit and inefficient because you could inherit ownership of huge industries even if you had no discernible ability. They wanted to turn the British education system into a giant capacity-catching machine, primarily through a combination of new grammar schools and new universities, in order to rescue “talented poverty from the shop or plough” and allocate it to the most powerful jobs in the country.

The party drew heavily on a combination of middle-class swots and working-class autodidacts (the beery trade union activists who Beatrice Webb so despised were there for ballast rather than guidance). Both groups were strangely isolated from their peers and yet marked out for leadership. The swots had to survive in an educational system ruled by flannelled fools. The autodidacts forsook the sociable world of the pub for Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) classes, Dent’s Temple classics, and trade union libraries (the one in Tredegar in south Wales had 100,000 volumes).

Ramsay MacDonald, whose close friends when he was growing up included a watchmaker who introduced him to Shakespeare and Dickens and a rag-and-bone man who read Thucydides in his idle moments, noted of the autodidacts that “their intellectual level is higher than that of many learned university coteries, and incomparably higher than that of wealthy manufacturers’ families”. A 1906 list of Labour MPs’ favourite authors recalls a lost world of popular learning: Ruskin is number one, followed by Dickens, the Bible and Thomas Carlyle, but the list also includes John Stuart Mill, Thomas Macaulay and Adam Smith (Marx doesn’t get a look-in).

Labour’s early giants repeatedly claimed that they got their inspiration from the meritocratic idea. Herbert Morrison looked forward to a world in which the new middle class and the old working class would combine together to create “a well-ordered, well-run society in which neither accident of birth nor occupation determines the status of the individual, but only the efficiency of his contribution to the social whole”. Ernest Bevin believed that progress depended on allowing “what I call the upsurge to come from the bottom to reach the top”. Aneurin Bevan, Bevin’s great rival, argued that “the duty of a state consists in seeing that all its members are so placed as to be able to seek without favour their own best; in so arranging things as to bring to light each human superiority; wherever it exists”.

Labour’s golden age

The 1945 Labour government presented itself as the embodiment of “the rise of the meritocracy”. Denis Healey, still in military uniform, told the 1945 Labour conference that “the upper classes in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent”. A 1947 Penguin Special, Labour Marches On by John Parker, argued that Labour’s defining idea was “equality of opportunity” – “to each man and woman, rich and poor, must be offered an opportunity limited only by his capacity, skill and energy”. In particular, the wartime coalition government enthusiastically implemented the 1944 Education Act, with its vision of grammar schools acting as the engines of social mobility and economic progress. This was Britain’s meritocratic moment and Labour was its architect.

The new grammar-school elite ascended to the top of the Labour Party and expanded on this meritocratic vision. Harold Wilson, the son of a self-educated textile chemist, climbed the educational ladder from his local council school, via Wirral Grammar School, to Oxford, where he won a clutch of university prizes, took an outstanding first in politics, philosophy and economics (legend has it that he got alphas on all his papers except moral philosophy), was awarded a research fellowship on graduation, and became president of the Board of Trade when he was 31. His notion of the white heat of technology, as set out in his 1963 party conference speech, quickly defined the age.

The Labour Party presented the 1964 general election as a conflict between Wilson, with his white laboratory coat, and the 14th Earl of Hume (Alec Douglas-Home). “For the commanding heights of British industry to be controlled today by men whose only claim is their aristocratic connection or the power of inherited wealth or speculative finance,” Wilson told the 1963 Labour conference, “is as irrelevant to the 20th century as would be the continued purchase of commissions in the armed forces by lordly amateurs. At the very time that even the MCC has abolished the distinction between amateurs and professionals we are content to remain a nation of gentlemen in a world of players.”

The Conservative Party was forced to retaliate by appointing a scholarship boy of its own as leader in Edward Heath – a product of Chatham House Grammar School, Ramsgate and Balliol College, Oxford.

Labour played the same meritocratic tune during Blair’s three terms as prime minister. The “New” in New Labour was essentially an undisguised enthusiasm for opportunity and upward mobility. This linked a critique of the British establishment with a critique of the old Labour Party. Out went the old collectivist dream in the form of Clause IV and trade union barons. In came enterprise, self-help and the fruits of ability. Blair was so enthusiastic about announcing that “New Labour is committed to meritocracy” that he earned a rebuke from Michael Young, author of The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), who pointed out, correctly but ineffectually, that he had coined the term as a criticism rather than a celebration.

Blair didn’t risk trying to reintroduce grammar schools (though, like most of the political class, including Shirley Williams, he sent his own children to elite secondary schools). But he did infuriate his party’s left by taking the Conservatives’ criticisms of “bog-standard comprehensives” seriously, hiring Andrew Adonis to drive an ambitious educational reform programme from Downing Street (the Department for Education being considered untrustworthy). He subjected all state schools to a Gradgrindian regime of testing, inspection, league tables and competition. He introduced academy schools, free from local educational authority control and empowered to develop their own ethos and to break the “cycle of low expectations” in the public sector.

Blair’s enthusiasm for meritocracy was sharpened by an understanding that a just meritocracy has to be built from the bottom upwards. His commitment to eradicating child poverty led to the establishment in 2010 of the Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, under Alan Milburn, which was charged with identifying blockages to social mobility and funding remedies to those blockages. Blair also shared the Webbs’ vision of a school system in London that provided opportunity for the poorest children. In 2003 the London Challenge introduced a step change in the performance of London schools by encouraging good schools to share both staff and pedagogical wisdom with their less successful neighbours.

Labour’s self-destruction

Blair was fighting a rearguard action against his party’s rejection of the meritocratic idea in the late 1950s and 1960s – a turn that not only associated Labour with “bog-standard comprehensives” and mixed-ability classes but also allowed the Tories to seize and redefine the idea of merit.

Two books had played a vital role in changing Labour’s mind. The first was Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956), which insisted not only that the 11-plus exam generated lots of injustices (a point demonstrated by a growing sociological literature), but also that socialists should try to become the party of fun rather than grim utilitarian calculus. The second was Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire which argued that the meritocratic idea had subverted socialism by replacing equality of result with the idea of equality of opportunity and solidarity with competition. Young argued that, however attractive it might sound at first, meritocracy was even worse than aristocracy because it left the unsuccessful with nobody but themselves to blame for their failures.

These books caught the imagination because the grammar schools had a dark shadow in the form of the secondary moderns. The 11-plus divided children into sheep and goats on the basis of a cut-off point that could vary widely across the country (Wales had more grammar school places at its disposal than fast-growing suburbs around London). The sociologist David Glass compared parents awaiting the result of the 11-plus to King Aegeus “on the cliffs, waiting to see if the returning sails are black or white”. AJP Taylor advised 11-plus failures bluntly to “run away to sea rather than go to a secondary modern”. Labour MPs progressively turned against the 11-plus as they were inundated with complaints from parents who endured the anxiety of the examination only to see their children shunted into what was universally regarded as a dead end.

There were lots of possible solutions to this problem that could have maintained the virtues of meritocracy while addressing the downsides of this particular version of it. The grammar schools could have been expanded in the most rapidly growing parts of the country. Technical schools could have been upgraded: the 1944 Education Act had envisaged a tripartite system modelled on the highly successful (and still thriving) German system. The party could have made a real effort to fulfil Harold Wilson’s vision of “grammar schools for all” by making sure that the new comprehensives were as academically rigorous. Or, finally, it could have pushed further with the meritocratic revolution and turned its fire on the public fee-charging schools, forcing them to earn their charitable status by opening up far more of their places to scholarship boys and girls chosen from the whole country, rather than from a magic circle of hot-house prep schools.

[See also: Labour’s loss of Hartlepool is the final death rattle of a movement that has abandoned its heartlands]

When Anthony Crosland became secretary of state for education in 1965 he probably had a vague idea of following Wilson’s vision. But a combination of his personal snobbery and the spirit of the times meant that he made the worst possible choices. He declared his determination to abolish “every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.” He forgot his own warning, in The Future of Socialism, that it would be idiotic to abolish grammar schools while leaving public schools intact. He was quickly captured by Department for Education officials and educational theorists (particularly AH Halsey) determined to push forward with the egalitarian revolution. Why force children to sit in rows when they are better off learning by doing? How could you rely on tests to divide children into different ability streams if you couldn’t rely on them to divide children into different schools? And why would you want to do so anyway, if “ability” was the result of circumstances rather than raw capacity? Comprehensive schools should be “equality machines”, according to the ruling educational theory of the day, not grammar schools by other means or training camps for the workforce.

Shirley Williams set herself the task of completing Crosland’s revolution when she was education secretary from 1976 to 1979, paying particular attention to abolishing the direct-grant grammar schools, which straddled the public-private divide by taking some fee-paying pupils and giving other pupils free places.

The result was to reverse the great social revolution engineered by the 1945 Labour government. In the postwar years the grammar-school elite had not only broken down the gates of the old establishment but wandered the corridors of power with a new self-confidence. The public schools’ share of Oxbridge places declined from 55 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1967, with the difference made almost entirely by grammar schools. The number of parents who were willing to pay for a public-school education when they could get a first-class academic education for free declined so sharply that Eric Anderson, the greatest public-school headmaster of the postwar era, speculated that “60 per cent of the public schools would have gone under if the grammar schools had remained”.

When William Waldegrave, the Conservative peer and former health secretary, went up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from Eton in the mid-1960s he discovered that the tone of the university was being set by the students from the grammar schools rather than public schools. He writes in his 2015 memoir A Different Kind of Weather: My friends and competitors were as likely – possibly more likely – to come from the great Lancashire and Midlands grammar schools as from my old school or Winchester or Harrow. They were confident, clever and at least as widely cultured as we were… A surge of new meritocratic ability refreshed Britain even if a disconcerting number of the new television iconoclasts at whom we laughed turned out to have attended Shrewsbury or Charterhouse.


With the abolition of the grammar schools the public-school elite was on the march once again: by the 1980s the proportion of state-school children at Oxbridge was declining and, as I remember all too well from when I was at Oxford, the tone of the university was increasingly set by Bullingdon boys such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron and belles of the ball such as Nigella Lawson and Ghislaine Maxwell.

The Labour Party’s embrace of egalitarianism had allowed the Conservatives to seize the meritocratic idea. Margaret Thatcher proudly presented herself as a grammar-school girl who had got where she was by grit and determination, and had no time for either the languid Old Etonians on her side or antediluvian trade union bosses on the other side. But she did something even more important than this: she redefined the nature of merit.

At Labour’s peak after the Second World War, “meritocracy” had been associated with the public sector – and had indeed been used as an excuse for taking over badly run industries from the private sector. Thatcher, however, firmly associated it with the private sector. While the public sector was a world of collective bargaining and feather bedding, the private sector rewarded people according to their abilities. By favouring equality over meritocracy and community over competition, the Labour Party had unwittingly paved the way for an ambitious programme of privatisation and “rolling back the frontiers of the state”.

The tragedy of the 1960s and 1970s repeated itself in the farce of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn was the anti-meritocratic revolution made flesh: he left grammar school (he had previously been to a private prep school) with two Es at A-level; spent a couple of years doing voluntary work in Jamaica; took trade union studies at the North London Polytechnic only to drop out without a degree; became a fixture in radical Islington – attending demos, distributing leaflets and, despite not being a drinker, singing raucous Irish freedom songs in pubs; and eventually landed a safe Labour seat.

Labour Party conferences during Corbyn’s leadership featured a strange melange of old-fashioned trade unionists who sat in the hall passing “composite motions” and countercultural activists, old as well as young, who gathered under the banner of the World Transformed and sat late into the night discussing the 17th-century Diggers and their vision of “The World Turned Upside Down”. The one thing they all had in common was an angry dislike for anything that smacked of “meritocracy”: “abilities” were socially constructed, academies were grammar schools in disguise, educational selection was a form of apartheid, “high-stakes testing” was a soul-destroying waste of time, and Tony Blair was a traitor to the great Labour tradition. In 2019 the public subjected the party to its biggest defeat since 1935.

One of the many reasons for this defeat was that these ritualistic denouncements of “educational apartheid” were delivered at a time when the educational reforms that had begun with Thatcher and that both Blair and David Cameron had championed were beginning to work. The proportion of UK students at Oxbridge who were educated at state schools has increased from about 55 per cent in 2015 to about 70 per cent today. This is partly, to be sure, because Oxbridge is making more effort to widen its net (Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall college deserves particular praise for pioneering a fully funded foundation year of additional teaching for promising pupils from deprived backgrounds so that they can catch up with their more fortunate peers, an initiative which has now been taken up by the rest of the university), but also because academy schools are coming into their own.

Brampton Manor Academy in Newham, one of the poorest boroughs in London, is a particularly encouraging example of what can be done if you take the meritocratic idea seriously. This year the school won more places at Oxbridge (55) than Eton (48), and the majority of pupils come from ethnic minorities and more than half of its pupils are eligible for free school meals. Its sixth form is highly selective, recruiting from across the borough and expecting A-level applicants to have good grades at GCSEs in the relevant subjects, though it is less selective than Eton, which recruits from across the world rather than a single deprived borough. This selectivity allows Brampton to cultivate a rigorously academic atmosphere. It requires all pupils to wear uniforms and offers intensive coaching for Oxbridge entrance exams, as well as a wide range of extracurricular activities. It records the names of successful Oxbridge candidates in gold letters on an honours board.

This is the sort of inequality-busting machine that Labour ought to be celebrating, but instead it is allowing all the credit to go to the Tories, who, having hijacked the meritocratic idea during the Thatcher era for the private sector, are now re-emerging as the party of public-sector meritocratic reform.


Starmer and the meritocratic tradition

Keir Starmer faces three big challenges if he is to regain momentum as the Labour leader rather than spending the coming years fighting to survive. He needs to create a political narrative rooted in his own biography. He needs to capture the centre ground of politics from the Tories. And he needs to mobilise the rage that all sorts of Britons feel about the rise of a self-indulgent and irresponsible plutocratic elite. Meritocracy provides an answer to all three.

Starmer visibly belongs to Labour’s great meritocratic tradition. Indeed, his very name takes us back to the great age of working-class autodidacts – Keir Hardie said that the great turning point of his life was when he discovered Thomas Carlyle at the age of 16. Starmer’s father was a factory worker who came home every evening to look after his mother, who suffered from a terrible degenerative disease. He went to Reigate Grammar School, where his contemporaries included the effervescent Andrew Sullivan, a journalist based in the United States. He proceeded from a first in law at Leeds University to a postgraduate degree at Oxford and then to a stellar career at the bar, culminating in five years as director of public prosecutions and a knighthood. It’s easy to imagine him shooting the breeze with Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison.

The Conservative Party has done a deft job of occupying the middle ground both in terms of its voter base (the northern working class) and in the issues it has chosen – the commitment to expanding the state and focusing on education and the NHS. Simply trying to outbid the Tories is likely to create worries among voters about overspending.

A better way for Labour would be to focus on reinventing the meritocratic tradition: celebrate schools such as Brampton Manor Academy; call for a new generation of technical schools and colleges, like the ones that are so successful in Germany, that will provide a ladder of opportunity to people who don’t want to go to university; and point out that, for all their waffle about the north, the Tories are still the party of unmerited wealth.

Look at the shiny new tower blocks in London (and indeed other cities) that are full of empty flats owned by foreign investors – Swiss bank accounts in the sky. Look at the streams of money flowing into Conservative coffers from wealthy Russian and other suspicious donors. Look at the fact that around a third of Britain is still owned by the landed aristocracy. Look at the way that the products of public schools continue to dominate British institutions (including the Conservative Party).

Criticising the concentration of wealth can backfire badly if it is done in the name of equality of outcome, as Jeremy Corbyn discovered: nobody wants to live in Venezuela. But it can succeed brilliantly if it is presented in terms of opportunity.

What about criticising the public schools by suggesting that they make half of their places available to scholarship winners? Or forcing foreigners who buy flats in Britain as investments to guarantee that they are increasing the stock available rather than just nabbing what is already there (as is done in New Zealand)? Or imposing a tax on big landowners, such as the ones who own so much of the north of England, who have done nothing to deserve their position other than being born?

The Labour Party has a winning ideology left deep in its muscle memory. Starmer’s best chance of giving some life to his currently inert leadership lies in reclaiming that ideology, egalitarian critics to his left be damned, and refashioning it for our current age of plutocratic elites, growing inequality and frustrated popular ambition. Politicians are doomed to flounder if they can’t find a single word or phrase to sum up what they are about. Keir Starmer’s last, and best, chance lies in the word “meritocracy”.

Adrian Wooldridge is the Economist’s political editor and Bagehot columnist. His new book, “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World”, is published by Allen Lane on 3 June

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy