David Cameron’s equality rhetoric ignored the elephant in the room: class

Missing from the PM's plea for ‘equality of opportunity’ was an acknowledgement of the disadvantage accrued by class


David Cameron told delegates at the Conservative party conference yesterday that he would make social mobility his top priority. In this respect parts of his speech ought to have come as music to the ears of the centre-left.

So Cameron said:

“Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a British Muslim if he walks down the street and is abused for his faith.”

“Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a gay person rejected from a job because of the person they love.”

“It doesn’t mean much to a disabled person prevented from doing what they’re good at because of who they are.”

“I’m a dad of two daughters – opportunity won’t mean anything to them if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender rather than how good they are at their work.”

All of this is welcome and, until a short time ago, would have been unthinkable from a Tory leader (just 10 years ago then-Tory leader Michael Howard ran an anti-immigration election campaign under the sinister slogan ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’)

But missing from Cameron’s new-found enthusiasm for equality was any mention of class – still arguably the biggest factor in terms of the opportunities a person will get in life.

With the appropriate ardour, Cameron told the conference audience that those with ‘ethnic-sounding names get fewer responses to job applications‘.

As the prime minister made clear, this is a shameful state of affairs. But missing from the PM’s passionate plea for ‘equality of opportunity’ was any acknowledgement of the disadvantage accrued by class – despite twenty-first century Britain being a far from classless society.

According to a 2013 study by the London School of Economics, a disproportionately large number of places at Oxford are taken up by people with Norman Conquest surnames – names such as Baskerville, Darcy, Mandeville and Montgomery.

When you consider that just one in 10 children who attend either Oxford or Cambridge are entitled to free school meals – compared with a fifth of children in Britain as a whole – it ought to be clear to all that more is at work in getting a golden ticket to one of Britain’s top institutions than talent alone.

And anyway, the odds of going to university at all are greatly increased for those born to affluent parents. Only around a fifth of the poorest youngsters go to university. This compares to 57 per cent of the richest.

Yet for Cameron, as with so many of today’s liberals (both Conservative and social democratic), class went unmentioned. And yet without acknowledging class disadvantage – alongside the other forms of disadvantage Cameron did mention – the prime minister cannot be serious about social mobility.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

8 Responses to “David Cameron’s equality rhetoric ignored the elephant in the room: class”

  1. Richie Nimmo

    Spot on. Class is the one axis of inequality that the Tories can never seriously oppose. because it’s at the very heart of their project.

  2. AlwaysIntegrity

    On average around 70 percent of intelligence is genetically inherited from your parents. The more intelligent the parent the more likely they will be in a high paid job. Well off parents are likely to be able to provide a better learning environment than poorer parents. So, children of middle class, well off parents are more likely to get higher grades at A level and more likely to get into ‘good’ universities. If this is what you mean by class then it is irresistable darwinism, I have yet to hear a practical solution other than putting more money into early age education, which is something all parties seem to agree on.

  3. Dave Stewart

    It’s not just about grades though. Of course there is a serious advantage in terms of educational attainment for the more wealthy for all the reasons you point out but often there are many other advantages, knowing the right people, being able to afford to do unpaid internships, having the right accent, simply having the confidence to feel like you belong which only ever really comes from being brought up with the sort of privilege that class can give.

  4. AlwaysIntegrity

    I don’t disagree that there are other factors although compared to grades they are probbly weaker. The issue to me is what to do about it?

  5. Silvia Vousden

    In his report to the Sutton Trust in 2010, Lord Goldthorpe concluded that the recipients of free school meals, where 5 times less likely to go to university REGARDLESS OF ABILITY. To be clear, he was saying that despite being just as able as their richer peers academically, the systemic obstacles that prevent bright students from poorer backgrounds gaining university places kept those without the financial support from their parents enjoyed by richer students out of university all together, preventing them from access to a better life. Private education is fast track system to government jobs, a fact demonstrated by the prevalence of privately educated individuals in government positions. Only 6% of the student population is privately educated and yet they occupy 68% of government roles. It is somewhat disingenuous to suggest that there some kind of meritocracy operating in our government and academic systems when all you need to gain political power and influence is to join a drinking club with some rather bizarre initiation ceremonies. I wonder what Darwin would have made of that?

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