“It’s the law of inverse relevance. The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it.” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Yes Minister.
Nick Clegg has launched a social mobility strategy. A hefty report was published this week which says that “improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Coalition Government’s social policy” (p. 1). That’s because “no one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth” (p. 5).
Most of the coverage of this strategy has gone on the subject of unpaid internships. I’m glad this issue has come into prominence: the glut of unpaid internships is scandalous and I hope to tackle it in a later blog post.
For now, let’s just look at the government’s plans to increase social mobility.
I haven’t read the report cover-to-cover, but I’ve got the gist of it. It’s a very frustrating document for two reasons. First, because it ignores one of the chief causes of social immobility. Second, because ignores that cause, the report doesn’t have any decent policies to combat social immobility.
1) Income inequality
The available evidence is limited, and it certainly isn’t the only cause, but societies with a higher rate of income inequality tend to have a lower rate of social mobility. Via the Staggers, I’ve pinched this graph, which you can also find in The Spirit Level:
The issue is not quite as straightforward as this table suggests. For the counter argument, see pp. 72-75 of this Policy Exchange paper that critiques The Spirit Level. Much of the data on social mobility between countries is not really directly comparable, and as a result the OECD thinks that the academic literature on international social mobility rates should be treated “with a great deal of caution” (see p. 73 of the Policy Exchange paper).
This confusion is reflected in the Social Mobility Strategy paper itself. Take this paragraph on p. 22 of the report:
1.41 There is an active debate about the relationship between income inequality and social mobility. Academic studies comparing levels of social mobility in different countries have found a correlation between high levels of income inequality and low levels of social mobility, although some have criticised the validity of this finding. Of course, correlation isnot the same as causation. The drivers of social mobility are complex, and income alone does not determine future outcomes.
I wonder if you can tell which bits of that paragraph were drawn up by the Conservatives…?
However, it’s common sense that you can only have social mobility, and true equality of opportunity, if there is a certain level of income equality. The first reason, as Chris Dillow put it, is “simple maths; the closer the gap between high and low incomes, the easier it is to leap that gap.”
A second reason is because, as the authors of this study into intergenerational mobility found, there is a strong relationship between family income and educational attainment. The authors found that a child from a family who’s income was a third less than the mean was three or four percentage points more likely to get no A-C GCSEs. Their chance of getting a degree fell by a similar amount (p. 14). In Britain the relationship between family income and educational achievement has gotten stronger, mainly because the expansion of higher education has most benefited those from higher-income families.
It stands to reason, therefore, that if income inequalities rise, the disparity in educational achievement between the richest and poorest in society will increase, and the prospect of social mobility falls. (I feel I should point out, however, that the authors of the CEP study did not go as far as to state this explicitly. We’ll come to their solutions later).
There’s another reason why you cannot have equality of opportunity without some equality of income. For that, I’m going to turn to what is rapidly becoming my bible: Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. It’s Thing 20, if you’re interested.
(P)oor children are bound to perform poorly in school, whatever their innate ability might be. Some of them go hungry at home and also skip lunch at school. This makes it impossible for them to concentrate, with predictable results for their academic performance…If their parents are illiterate and/or have to work long hours, children will have no one to help them with their homework, whilst middle-class children will be helped by their parents and rich kids may have private tutors. Helped or not, they may not even have enough time for homework, if they have to take care of younger siblings. (pp. 217-8)
For social mobility to happen, we need equality of opportunity. For equality of opportunity, a degree of income equality is needed. This report skirts around that issue, and because of that misses the point on a number of issues.
2) Addressing social immobility
It seems most likely that the issue of inequality was ignored because, for most Tory governments, reducing income inequality is not going to be on their priority list. The question then arises is: if you ignore that, how are you going to combat social immobility? And do you even want to?
As was pointed out in this achingly wonderful piece on what left-wing social mobility would look like, “There are clear problems both of morality and logic – the fact that if one poor person goes up, one rich person must go down – with this model of social mobility [that Clegg is proposing].”
That doesn’t really fit well with a large part of the Tory voting demographic. You can tell that in the Daily Mail’s reaction to Nick Clegg’s plans:
It seems that quite a few people would rather we kept things the way they are, thank you very much.
Charlie Beckett summed up the problems with using terms like “social mobility” very succinctly:
Real social mobility – all other things being equal – must surely mean that some people will rise over their lives and others will fall. If we all rise then that is simply economic growth. If only a lower social group rise relative to a higher group, then that is egalitarianism, not social mobility. If just a few people rise, then that’s just tokenism.
All of which leaves us with a quandary.
3) What now?
So, if social mobility is not only unobtainable (since Nick Clegg is explicitly ignoring equality of income as a goal for his government) and even if the social mobility Clegg talks of is undesirable for the Conservative’s core vote, what does the coalition do instead?
The answer just seems to be to talk about social mobility. There are no proposals in the document that aim to address the causes of social mobility, or inequality, or any form of disadvantage at all.
Take the area of gender inequality, for instance. The report ignores David Willetts’s faintly ridiculous remarks and says that the government sees “gender equality as an important factor in improving social mobility” (p. 57). But you’ll find no policies whatsoever about how to tackle the issue of gender inequality, apart from a brief discussion on the unequal nature of maternity and paternity leave.
Granted, you’ll find discussion of lots of problems, be given some rather disturbing figures and generally get the impression that Something Ought To Be Done. But then you get to the recommendations section.
Bear in mind, when you read these recommendations, Sir Arnold’s Law of Inverse Relevance.
Here’s the list of recommendations, which I’ve put in block quotes with my interpretation in italics:
We have developed ‘leading indicators’ of success in improving social mobility for each lifestage. These will also be included in departmental Business Plans, ensuring that they are at the centre of the work of departments, increasing transparency over the impact of our policies and helping the public to hold us to account.
This is talking about social mobility.
We will provide funding for a successor to the Millennium Cohort Study, ensuring that thereis a rich source of information on the long-term influence of our policies on social mobility.
More talking about social mobility.
We are establishing, on a statutory basis, a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to monitor progress on social mobility, as well as towards the measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010.
Even more talking about social mobility.
The Deputy Prime Minister will continue to chair the Ministerial Group on Social Mobility to unite Whitehall departments in improving social mobility.
This is talking about talking about social mobility.
We are setting out the key milestones in implementing this strategy and identifying who in Government is responsible for them.
Talking about talking about talking about social mobility.
All departments will consider the impact of new policies on social mobility.
Talking about talking about talking about talking about social mobility.
You get the idea.
If you follow Sir Arnold’s law, then, the coalition appears to want to do the square root of bugger all about social mobility. All of these groups started, research commissioned, committees set up to do whatever it is committees do…and not one single policy recommendation that would improve the lives of the poorest in society.
It’s not as if policy recommendations don’t exist. They exist in the reports cited in the Social Mobility Strategy document itself. Take the report on intergenerational mobility that I quoted earlier. This is what they have to say on the subject of policies:
To improve this situation we need also to use more direct means such as early years’ education, improved schools for poor communities and financial support to pursue post-compulsory education. Indeed, this is the policy direction that the Government seems to be taking through programmes like Sure Start, Excellence in Cities and the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). (p. 14)
I’m sure Nick Clegg will point to the Pupil Premium as being an example of Lib Dem policy designed to help the poorest children, but that money is not extra money to the Education budget, so it would be disingenuous of him to do that.
Obviously, the last thing Nick Clegg would want to be would be disingenuous.
All of which means that the government’s social mobility strategy is nonsense. It’s a strategy without a strategy. It’s targeting the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.
Which means the left needs to win this intellectual argument. Owen Jones started this with a good CIF article some weeks back, arguing that social mobility was a distraction that detracted from income inequality.
And I can’t think of a better way to end this piece than to quote Paul’s blog from Though Cowards Flinch that I linked to above:
Well, as I’ve said here, I think it looks like the cider advert, where identifiably working class males mass on the hill side, tooled up and ready to march on the sleepy town in the valley.
It’s a vision of pride in what we are, and a potent image of solidarity in what we can be. It’s also a vision tinged, if you want to see it that way, with menace to the status quo – a sort of #manualworkeruncut, coming ready or not.
Or in other words, trade unions.
Which is certainly an improvement on the pathetic excuse of an initiative that is the government’s Social Mobility Strategy.