Without economic equality, ‘social mobility’ will always be a fantasy

The rich will always do better in life - we must reduce the gap between rich and poor.

The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has challenged the forty year fantasy of pursuing social mobility within the context of worsening UK social inequality.

As Corbyn explained:

“For decades we’ve been told that inequality doesn’t matter because the education system will allow talented and hard-working people to succeed whatever their background.

But the greater inequality has become, the more entrenched it has become, The idea that only a few talented or lucky people deserve to escape the disadvantage they were born into, leaving in place a social hierarchy in which millions are consigned to the scrap heap, results in the talents of millions of children being squandered.”

Promises to improve social mobility to create a fairer society, advanced by successive governments over thirty years – from Major to May – have largely left the nature and extent of that unfairness unchallenged, despite numerous commissions and policy initiatives.  

Tory leadership candidates, especially right-wingers like Dominic Raab and Esther McVey, are finding that referencing social mobility enables them to burnish their ‘one nation’ credentials while ignoring any real changes to the British class system or inequalities in wealth and income.

That the majority of elite universities, politics, and the most powerful professions remain dominated by former private school pupils, and that the UK is now at ‘peak inequality’ underscores the depth of problem.  

The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. While inequality in the UK reduced year-on-year from the end of the First World War until 1979. With the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories, inequality began to increase again and is now at levels last seen in the 1920s.

Austerity has played a part in entrenching inequality since 2010. The poorest in the UK have seen their stake in national income and wealth decrease, their local services cut and the cohesion of their communities eroded, even as the richest have seen their wealth and incomes soar.

Pursuit of policies to improve often ill-defined social mobility are fundamentally flawed. They assume that commitment to building a ‘meritocracy’ is both achievable and desirable.

How individuals fare in a society is largely based on the privilege of their upbringing, schooling and luck, as well as any innate abilities of ‘merit’. These can only be mitigated by reducing the gap between rich and poor.

A hierarchical ‘meritocracy’ (a term originally coined by Lord Young in his 1958 dystopian novel) would further embed the notion that where people end up is where they deserve to be.

A further concern for supporters of social mobility is that it centres upon competition for a relatively small number of top jobs. So if some are to move up, then others need to move down.

In the present context of the rich defending their privilege and widening socio-economic inequalities, enabling those from poorer households to compete by spending a bit more on education seems twee at best.

What’s needed, as Corbyn has grasped, is what most critics of social mobility have long articulated – create a more equal society.

This can be done through a range of redistributive mechanisms: progressive income tax system, introduction of a wealth tax, and confronting the charitable status and tax advantages of private schools – and social mobility within a flatter societal structure will largely take care of itself.

Kevin Gulliver – – is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, is former Chair of the Centre for Community Research, and part of the SHOUT save social housing campaign, but writes in a personal capacity. His interests are social and economic policy, especially relating to housing, health, wellbeing, communities, deprivation and disadvantage, and inequalities.

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5 Responses to “Without economic equality, ‘social mobility’ will always be a fantasy”

  1. Tom Sacold

    Private education should be banned.

    We need a fully State funded, secular and meritocratic education system where academic excellence is valued. Bog standard Comps are not the answer.

  2. Without economic equality, ‘social mobility’ will always be a fantasy – MemePosts

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  3. Irena Pribisevic

    “Social Mobility” and “aspiration”, two things which, shock horror it may surprise the rich and privileged, many in the lower echelons are not actually that fussed about. A great number actually like doing the jobs they do, living where they do and pursuing their hobbies and spending their leisure time as they do and have no desire to climb the social ladder. What they do need is to be valued for their contribution to society, the benefits of which those at the top could not enjoy without them working away at the bottom. It should not be necessary for them to have to clamber over each other and get that little bit higher in the pecking order for them to enjoy decent housing, healthcare, education, food etc. These things should be attainable and available to all and the importance or value of a man should be dependent neither on his class nor his desire to rise above it. That’s not to say the opportunity to rise is not important, of course this should be available to all, but not aspiring to or indeed failing to achieve this, doesn’t mean a person is any less worthy or intelligent or deserving of respect. Yes, we need a more equal society where all classes are valued and remunerated for their contributions and are able to live secure, safe and healthy lives. Bring it on Jeremy.

  4. Dave Roberts

    How does Mr Gulliver get away with this rubbish? He is running a non organisation that doesn’t file its returns, has six people to its conferences and has no track record of doing anything. Mind you, nice work if you can get it!

  5. Blissex

    «The idea that only a few talented or lucky people deserve to escape the disadvantage they were born into»

    According to Roy Hattersley that idea is not why the Labour Party exists, as he wrote in 2001 very clearly:

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/24/labour2001to2005.news
    «Tony Blair discovered a big idea. His destiny is to create a meritocracy. Unfortunately meritocracy is not the form of society which social democrats want to see. … A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation. By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority.
    The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape.
    … The certain knowledge that the Conservative Party would be a worse government than Labour is not enough to sustain what used to be a party of principles. … At this moment Labour stands for very little that can be identified with social democracy
    »

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