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Something is missing from the United Kingdom’s social mobility debate

But two MPs have put their names to a new project that might change that.

By Stephen Bush

Almost everyone in British politics is for equality of opportunity, at least in theory. Yet in reality, equality of opportunity in the United Kingdom remains patchy, both geographically and in terms of occupation.

The divide isn’t really north-south: when in 2017 the Social Mobility Commission ranked England’s 324 local authority areas by the amount of access to qualifications and good jobs, it found that the worst-performing 25 areas were dotted across the United Kingdom – everywhere, that is, except London. Just one London borough (Barking and Dagenham, at 114) is outside the top 100, and just two (Enfield and Hillingdon, at 53 and 71 respectively) are outside the top 50. Your access to opportunity is markedly worse in Oldham (252) than Trafford (24), despite the two being only half an hour’s drive from one another.

That exposes the “hidden” part of Westminster’s current debate about class, voting and the present nature of the Conservative and Labour coalitions. You are much more likely to be born into poverty if you are living in a Labour-held constituency: but you are also much more likely to be able to exit poverty. Taken together, that gets you the most reliable parts of the Labour coalition: people living in poverty or people who are concerned about poverty, whether because they have a strong ideological commitment to eradicating it, a direct experience of growing up in it, or both. That is best illustrated by London, which has the highest rates of child poverty in the UK but also contains the 20 local authority areas with the highest rates of social mobility, and also contains the seats that have moved towards Labour at the fastest rate over the past decade.

In contrast, the Conservatives have done well in winning the votes of the retired and people who are not in poverty but are intensely vulnerable to comparatively small increases in interest rates or child poverty. Voters you might call “The working not-quite-poor” or the “just about managing”, to use a phrase beloved of Theresa May but best articulated at length here by James Frayne.

The Conservatives are winning because they have successfully managed to bolt the working not-quite-poor onto their existing electoral coalition. The Labour Party is struggling because it is failing to persuade the working-not-quite poor in Hartlepool and Harlow that their economic and social interests are best served by alliances with people in or concerned about poverty in Hackney and Haringey.

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But one potential problem for the Conservative Party is that it also represents the seats that are, and there’s no nice way to put this, the problem. Part of the reason why a kid in a seat the Conservatives first won in 2019 is not getting a job as a barrister is because a barrister in a seat the Conservatives have held since 1906 is giving unfair opportunity to their idiot nephew, or to a friend’s child.

That’s the sharp end of the social mobility debate that politicians have generally been reluctant to touch. As Vince Cable, a rare exception to that rule, once observed, the son of an investment banker who ends up working as a cloakroom assistant is also an example of social mobility: indeed, for the most part, it is a necessary precondition of social mobility. One reason why the 1950s and 1960s were good decades for social mobility in the UK is that changes in the country’s economic structure meant there was, as the title of one novel put it, “Room at the Top”.

Of course, one way round the problem of “everyone agrees the cloakroom assistant’s son should be able to become a doctor, no one agrees that the doctor’s son should have to work in a cloakroom” is just to say “well, we’ll create more room at the top”. I’m not saying this is impossible – but I am saying that it in practice, this argument has been a distraction from the hard discussions about unfair and opaque hiring practices that entrench rather than spread privileges. In different ways and for different reasons, that is the story of both New Labour and the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition’s attempts to fix this problem: they had successes in some of the “new economy” stuff, but they fell short in the “cracking down on bad behaviour in the professions” department.

But if you want to be the party of the “just about managing” and to genuinely fix equality of opportunity, you have to be willing to confront those practices; particularly if you are experiencing long-term difficulties in your formerly safe seats.

A new project by the Social Market Foundation, The Opportunity Gap, is particularly interesting. The project’s aim is to to examine the causes of the “opportunity gap”, to identify best practice, but also, more significantly, to “call out” organisations that aren’t doing enough to close it.

Equally important are the two MPs that have agreed to be the faces of the scheme: the Conservative backbenchers Claire Coutinho and David Johnston. Coutinho and Johnston are elected for traditionally safe Tory seats in Surrey and Oxfordshire respectively, and are both regularly tipped for big things in the future. And to crassly generalise about their constituencies, which, like everywhere, are complex representations of every part of the United Kingdom, they are seats in which, yes, there are people on the wrong side of the opportunity gap, but also numerous individuals with reason to be nervous about being “called out”. The success of their new endeavour will, one way or the other, decide whether the latest attempt to tackle this problem is any more successful than previous ones.

[see also: In defence of meritocracy]