Duncan Exley is the campaign director for One Society
Today, Nick Clegg launches a Royal Commission on social mobility. There are a number of reasons to celebrate this.
Firstly, because it is necessary. The UK has one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world. This is a tragedy for those ‘trapped at the bottom’, but also for the rest of us who will not benefit from the contribution of those who never get to become the innovators, teachers, entrepreneurs or surgeons that they could have been.
Secondly, because Nick Clegg is proposing the adoption of social mobility indicators, which include measures – such as birth weight and the proportion of former state school pupils in top universities - that are of real importance in a civilised and productive society.
Also welcome is the commitment to address the growing injustice of unpaid internships, with an indication that companies which continue this practice may “risk a legal challenge under the national minimum wage legislation”.
On the other hand, statements already made by the deputy prime minister raise serious concerns. Perhaps the most worrying is Nick Clegg’s claim that:
“Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality.”
It is worrying for a number of reasons.
Firstly, I think most people would question whether the current “particular level of income inequality” characterises a “fair society”.
For example, is it fair that the average pay of a Reckitt Benckiser employee in 2009 was 0.07% that of the company’s chief executive? Is it fair that the wealth gap between the UK’s 10th and 90th percentiles is 1:97? And is it really OK that millions spend their childhood in poverty (sometimes so severe as to reduce life expectancy by decades), as long as some of them eventually climb out?
Secondly, there is overwhelming evidence that the most effective way to increase social mobility is to reduce income inequality; (i.e, trying to address social mobility while ignoring inequality is like trying to lose weight but ignoring calories). Study after study after study after study shows that it is “likely to be very hard to increase social mobility without tackling inequality” and that:
“Income inequality can become entrenched across generations, as elites monopolise top jobs regardless of their talent, gaining preferential access to capital and opportunities. This harms social mobility.”
There are means of encouraging social mobility that do not involve reducing income inequality, including introducing and encouraging the children of low-income parents (and children looked after by the state) to have education and career opportunities beyond their families’ experience.
However, social mobility can take generations; it will be a colossal shame if, after a few decades, the indicators that are now being proposed merely tell us that we have spent valuable time tinkering around the edges and neglecting the real driver of social mobility.