Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery

Nick Clegg used his Hugo Young lecture to unfurl a banner for the "new progressives". But he chose not to set out what "new progressives" think about the causes of social mobility.

Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of the Fabian Society

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg used his Hugo Young lecture at The Guardian to unfurl a banner for the “new progressives”.

Down with focusing on “old progressive” goals of reducing income inequality and relative poverty, the “old” thinking of the statist left. Up with social mobility, the great “new progressive” cause of the modern meritocrat.

Here Clegg’s lecture followed closely in the footsteps of David Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture a year ago, in which Cameron argued that state action was now increasing poverty and inequality, so reducing the role of the state would enable the “big society” to reduce inequality.

Yet Cameron’s speech was criticised for a major hole in its analysis of inequality. “To make a speech about inequality and poverty and then to chart the course of 20th-century British history but miss out the Thatcher years was dishonest”, wrote Richard Reeves, now Downing Street to Nick Clegg (though then head of Demos) in a punchy critique of the Cameron lecture for Prospect magazine.

By the same token, a deputy Prime Minister who wants to make restoring social mobility in Britain his great cause in government is surely going to need to have, and to articulate, a clear analysis of why social mobility fell. But Nick Clegg’s speech didn’t seem to address this, so I thought I would ask him to unpick the social mobility mystery. The gist of my question was this:

You share a lot of themes with David Cameron in his own Hugo Young lecture last year. But several people noticed that David Cameron didn’t say anything about why there was such a sharp slump in social mobility in the 1980s. So I wonder if you could offer us your analysis of why social mobility fell so sharply then?

Since social mobility is your main priority, it would also be interesting to hear what you think are one or two of the most important factors leading to social mobility being highest in Sweden, and lowest in the United States. Do you think there might be any lessons for Britain from why social mobility is so high and so low in those countries?

So did Nick Clegg rise to that challenge better than David Cameron? Here’s how he responded. “The evidence on social mobility is extraordinarily difficult to unpick”, he said. Some of the data is from the 1970s. It was not always clear what was going on. He extended that point to note to that “the comparative data is very complex”.

But he went on to make one substantive point that went beyond the general point that the international evidence was complicated.

“One thing is that a society where the gap between top and bottom is narrower, in a sense, it is easier to measure social mobility, because there is less distance to travel“, he said.

He then returned to the UK, and said he thought that a particularly significant and “distinctive” feature in the UK was “the extent of social segregation in the education system”. He talked generally about how he felt that this was important, saying he felt this was reflected in the PISA studies and the research of the Sutton Trust, and how he was confident that the Coalition was seeking to do something about this.

That was about all.


This answer didn’t offer much progress.

First, Clegg’s answer – even when prompted – followed Cameron in failing to mention the 1980s at all. The point about methodology is a good reason for being cautious in making preliminary findings about the last decade – it is too soon to tell definitively what has happened to intergenerational mobility, that is much less plausible in terms of the 1980s.

But we didn’t get any explanation from him about the causes of the fall in social mobility which he is so keen to reverse, nor what he is trying to do to ensure that a government which believes it is necessary to reduce the size of the state (because of its deficit reduction strategy) can avoid repeating the negative social consequences of state retrenchment in the 1980s.

There is a political explanation as to why David Cameron cannot mention the 1980s. The Tory leader has never explicitly criticised Margaret Thatcher in public. That demarcates the limits of Tory modernisation. It is more of a mystery as to why Clegg would refuse to give an account of the 1980s.

Secondly, Clegg gave no substantive account of the drivers of high mobility and low mobility, for example between Sweden and America either.

Clegg’s reference to societies with a smaller gap between top and bottom was rather opaque, and odd.

It sounds rather as if Clegg is about to veer towards endorsing the argument of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: that more equal democratic societies tend to have higher social mobility than more unequal ones. But Clegg is making a different claim: arguing only that it is easier to measure social mobility where there are narrower gaps across society, rather than that it is easier to achieve social mobility in a less stratified and unequal society.

To follow the evidence to that point would surely wreck his overall argument for “new” progressives not being particularly bothered by “old” income inequality, if it turned out to be an important causal driver of the high social mobility he wants.

But perhaps Clegg will need to reconsider this anyway. Despite the lecture’s core inequality-sceptic argument, Clegg’s government and party are in principle committed to reducing child poverty (a relative inequality measure).

So that ought to offer him a route back to the more sensible common sense argument for those interested in equal opportunities: that narrowing income inequality (and reducing child poverty in particular) is one important part of narrowing intergenerational inequalities in life chances, though income is not the only thing that matters to reducing the transmission of advantage and disadvantage across generations.


There were more unanswered questions last night. Timothy Garton-Ash asked, since Clegg had spoken about “new” progressives throughout the speech, whether he could give a definition of what he meant by the word.

Clegg’s lengthy answer didn’t seem to offer a clear definition. There were, he said, essentially three groups. Conservatives mostly wanted to conserve the status quo, “except Margaret Thatcher”, who didn’t, he explained. Then there were collectivists – the socialist tradition – which believed in using the state. This, Clegg explained, had achieved great things in liberating people through the state in the 20th century, but it was no use trying to do use this approach now. The third group were his “new progressives”, who wanted change, but through citizens, not the state.

Nick Clegg wasn’t asked one obvious question – did David Cameron fit his definition of a “new progressive” – though the definition seemed designed to bring the Conservative leader in.

Yet, on the evidence of the two Hugo Young lectures, both of the Coalition’s self-styled “new progressives” seem caught in a contradiction about whether or how they think inequality matters or not.

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34 Responses to “Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery”

  1. Paul Kenny

    RT @leftfootfwd: Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery – @nextleft unpicks the Deputy PM's Hugo Young lecture

  2. Lee Hyde

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  3. Jacob Richardson

    RT @leftfootfwd: Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery – @nextleft unpicks the Deputy PM's Hugo Young lecture

  4. sally

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  5. gemma tumelty

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  6. Jean McLean

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  7. Shamik Das

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  8. John Stuttle

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  10. GuyAitchison

    RT @leftfootfwd: Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery – @nextleft unpicks the Deputy PM's Hugo Young lecture

  11. Anon E Mouse

    Will – Perhaps Clegg didn’t address the 1980’s because it was so long ago and there’s been 13 years of a Labour government since then. These terms like “progressive”, especially when applied to the aforementioned Labour government, are pretty meaningless.

    What was progressive about Iraq?

    Actions speak louder than words I’m afraid and since inequality rose under Labour, (along with unemployment, personal debt and the wrecked financial situation) I hardly think the criticism of Nick Clegg is fair.

  12. Sunder Katwala

    I asked @nick_clegg why social mobility fell in 1980s & why he thinks higher in Sweden than US. his reply @leftfootfwd

  13. Eddy Anderson

    I blogged on this too. What interested me more, though, was the fact that Clegg was giving this lecture at all: this seems to me like a radical repositioning of Clegg’s governmental role, and I’m interested to see how it pans out.

  14. Charlie Beckett

    RT @leftfootfwd: Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery – @nextleft unpicks the Deputy PM's Hugo Young lecture

  15. Jess

    @Anon E Mouse

    Why are we talking about the 80s? Because it was the last time the Tories were in power. And it’s Clegg who’s going on about ‘progressive’ this ‘progressive’ that.

    How can you say that the ‘wrecked financial situation’ was Labour’s fault? Was Labour in power in America, Greece, Ireland, France and so on as well? And employment never got as high as it did under the Tories.

    Your Iraq point is ridiculous, do you even know what the meaning of progressive is? Taxing more as you go up the income scale.

  16. Simon Henry

    RT @nextleft: I asked @nick_clegg why social mobility fell in 1980s & why he thinks higher in Sweden than US. his reply

  17. Gary Banham

    RT @leftfootfwd: Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery – @nextleft unpicks the Deputy PM's Hugo Young lecture

  18. Rebekah Higgitt

    RT @leftfootfwd: Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery – @nextleft unpicks the Deputy PM's Hugo Young lecture

  19. Sunder Katwala

    Anon E Mouse

    The relevance of the 1980s is that Clegg is talking about mobility across generations.

    The academic studies informing much political debate report high mobility for the 1958 cohort (the 18 year olds of 1976) and much lower mobility for
    The 1970 cohort (18 in 1988). It is early to say definitively what outcomes are for the 2000 cohort (now 10 years old)

    Early evidence using school tests predicts mobility has stabilised, and not continued to fall,
    But that it has not reversed.

    In policy terms, one would hope a Coalition approach to mobility would identify causes of that stark fall, to avoid repeating or reinforcing.

    An intergenerational focus requires a detailed engagement and critique of where Labour was going in the right direction (SureStart, inner city school results improving fastest, improved life expectancy in social classes DE) and where it wasn’t (overall inequality at top, limited progress on child poverty, stalling after 2005)

  20. Anon E Mouse

    Jess – Let’s do some facts: this is a coalition government, not a Tory one so the questioning about the 1980’s under the Tories is as relevant as the 1970’s under Labour. It is a coalition. Your point has no merit.

    Last time Labour was in power in the 1970’s it was the “Winter Of Discontent” and was the fault of the unions. The time before in the 1960’s devaluing “The Pound In Your Pocket” Labour blamed the Middle East wars and “foreign investors”.

    Then we have the useless Gordon Brown, who sold the gold off at a record low price, claimed he’d ended “Boom And Bust” and built up a non profitable public service beyond anything this country can afford just to increase Labour’s vote. (Same with immigration and that’s from Andrew Neather Labour’s own man not me). And that was the global recession’s fault – anybody but Labour’s.

    Labour did not start the world recession but it had built up a structural deficit of such mammoth proportions the country is now bust and that’s from the last Labour treasury minister Lyam Byrne not me.

    NON employment is around 5 million when disability allowance (a Tory statistic fiddle) is taken into consideration – far higher than any previous government.

    Finally if “progressive” is taxing more as you go up the income scale as you say, then that explains why Labour HAMMERED the poor by removing the 10p tax band and proposed a 1% jobs tax and the coalition has done exactly the opposite by removing tax for poor workers up to £10K.

    I know which I support more but then since Labour wants to give child benefit to multimillionaires I shouldn’t be surprised. Labour is a busted flush.

    (The point on Iraq is to illustrate that Labour will just openly lie to achieve its aims and like Boom and Bust which caused thousands to re mortgage their property and spend like there was no tomorrow)

  21. Anon E Mouse

    Sunder – By removing the Grammar schools in the 1960’s I think it did more to damage social mobility than any other action.

    However I accept your point regarding the question – it was a fair one irrespective of how Clegg chose to answer it…

  22. Paeleoplonker

    Amazing. Here are intelligent and sane folk talking about social mobility as though Clegg wasn’t a politician. Just how, exactly, is the increase in tuition fees ( and the emergence of supposedly academically superior universities who can charge higher fees), supposed to assist upward mobility? How is the disappearance of even run of the mill public sector jobs? Sure, capping housing benefit is going to make some folk more mobile than before – but in the right direction? Doesn’t the gap between what Clegg claims to think and what he actually supports make Lib Dem credibility a little hard to measure?

  23. Ganja Bot

    Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery – Left Foot Forward

  24. pontaprint

    mouse. leave out the apostrophe in 1980’s. just sayin’ 🙂

  25. Peter Ward

    Quite frankly all talk about social mobility and or greater “equality” by this generation of politicians is pretty much a joke!
    As a “Baby Boomer” I am constantly struck by how facile modern politics really is. As a Baby Boomer I take my share of the responsibility: it was largely we who voted in Thatcher, and hence the ascendency of polics as ‘management’.

    Clegg, Cameron, and probably Milliband and their various accolytes and followers have abandoned analytical tools in favour of focus groups and Daily Mail editorials. The factor lurking unseen is of course that ugly 5 letter word “class”.
    It is no accident that more poor kids fail to rise socially (and of course economically). It is simple Sociology (oh and a bit of dialectical meterialism, if I might make so bold!). Societies are organised by the powerful to protect and promote their power and wealth. For all their faults my parents’ generation were determined to root out and destroy all the worst elements of pre-war society. They largely succeded (though we took the credit of course!). The Cleggites et al will point to Grammar Schools, but that is the root of their political problems: it’s ideals, not management structures that change the world…

  26. Anon E Mouse

    pontaprint – Must be because I left comprehensive school only educated to O Level English…

  27. janie_s

    I went to a shitty left wing comp aswell. My english stopped at O level. But I do know my apostrophe’s.

  28. Anon E Mouse

    janie_s – Kick a man while he’s down why don’t you ;-}

  29. benp

    Anon E.M. “built up a non profitable public service beyond anything this country can afford just to increase Labour’s vote”

    Have you any proof that this was either the intention or the effect. Or do we all ‘know’ this?

  30. Spir.Sotiropoulou

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  31. NewLeftProject

    Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery

  32. Jana

    It was interesting that he completely avoided the question on mobility in the 80s. Particularly as you say, he, presumably, has no loyalty to Thatcher. It was a well delivered speech but low on substance. Somehow he argued that inequality is the fault of the state, and what is needed is local democratic control of public services which runs on thin air. Interesting that he avoided framing his position as marketisation though as that is effectively what they are trying to do. The great thing about social mobility as Sunder suggests, is that there is no chance that anyone will be able to measure how you’ve performed for quite some time.

    Andrew Neil went to great lengths to talk about the fact that only 40 children who were entitled to school meals went on to Oxbridge last year. Anyone with half a brain might reply that those children who went to university last year started their primary schooling in 1997. Hardly enough time to start making rash pronouncements about the last governments education policy on that basis.

  33. One Society campaign

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  34. Can Clegg deliver on his social mobility pledges? | Left Foot Forward

    […] also: Nick Clegg and the social mobility mystery – Sunder Katwala, November 24th […]

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