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Social mobility is a dead end

I am a walking indictment of Britain’s class system. Because I was a middle-class kid who attended a primary school “located in an area of high economic deprivation in Stockport”, as Ofsted put it, I was uncomfortably aware of this from an early age.

Without inflicting my life story on you, my mother was a lecturer at Salford University, and my dad was an economic regeneration officer for Sheffield city council. I grew up in an educated milieu and simply followed in the footsteps of fairly well-paid, professional people who’d gone to university. I did not suffer from the instability and stresses that scraping by in life can cause a family. Even when my dad lost his job during the fag-end of the last Tory government, I still enjoyed relative financial security. Like all people with my background, I will almost certainly die as I was born: middle-class.

Contrast my upbringing with the kids I grew up with. “Most of their parents tended to have some kind of work, but it was very low-paid – like shops, local industry, or whatever was about,” says Helena Button, my old teacher. Not long after I left, my school was ranked in the country’s bottom 5% for test results. I ended up as the only boy in my class to go to university, not because of innate superior ability, but because all the odds were stacked in my favour. Here is the reality of social mobility in modern Britain.

Yes, there are exceptions. My friend James is one of them. Raised in a single-parent family in an impoverished former mining community in the Rhondda Valley, he was the first in his family to go to university. He’s now a public affairs officer for one of the country’s leading charities. If politicians want a poster boy for social mobility, he’s as good as any.

Social mobility is the common language of today’s political establishment. As Nick Clegg would have it: “For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to social mobility is.”

But social mobility has nothing to offer the vast majority of people who share the backgrounds of my old classmates. It’s the idea of creaming off a small minority of able working-class kids and catapulting them into the middle classes. You accept the class system, merely offering ladders for some to escape the bottom. As Clegg suggests, issues such as inequality are sidelined.

Of course I am not saying we should abandon attempts to crack open the worlds of politics and the media, to take two striking examples. Both have become middle-class closed shops because of the scandal ofunpaid internships and the growing emphasis on qualifications, among other factors. It’s not just unfair, it leads to bad policies and bad journalism. But while opening up the professions will benefit a few thousand working-class kids, it will mean very little to the millions remaining in working-class jobs.

At this point, you are well within your rights to snap back: “It’s all right for you. You’re not going to spend your life cleaning out toilets.” But no one is talking about abolishing cleaning jobs or, say, supermarket checkout staff and call centre workers. Society as it is currently structured depends on millions of people working in these crucial jobs. Yet the cult of social mobility has contributed much to today’s rampant sneering at working-class Britain, because everyone is supposed to escape such occupations and become middle-class. Gordon Brown was typical among modern politicians when he fought the 2010 general election with a promise to create “a bigger middle class than ever before.”

Instead of putting social mobility at the heart of politics, we should emphasise the social worth of working-class jobs and support struggles to have pay and conditions that reflect it. Take a report by the New Economics Foundation a couple of years ago, which compared the social value of different occupations. Hospital cleaners, for example, are generally paid the minimum wage. However, when taking into account the fact they maintain standards of hygiene and contribute to wider health outcomes, NEF estimated they generate more than £10 in social value for every £1 they are paid. Waste recycling workers are another case in point: because of their role in preventing waste, promoting recycling and keeping down carbon emissions, NEF calculated that, for every £1 spent on their wages, another £12 is generated. But the NEF model was damning when it came to well-paid jobs like City bankers (for every £1 paid, £7 of social value is destroyed) or advertising executives (£11 destroyed for every £1 popped into their bank account).

Rather than embracing the individualism of social mobility, we need a collective approach. In the four years before the recession hit, the real wages of the bottom half were stagnating; for the bottom third, they actually declined. The inability of our greatly weakened trade unions to fight the corner of working people is a major reason, because there was no major countervailing force to the ever-growing concentration of wealth at the top. At the heart of politics should be a determination to improve the lives of working-class people as a class, rather than focusing on ways to somehow rescue a small minority.

I never thought that I’d agree with the ultra-Blairite Hazel Blears, but last year she put it to me pretty eloquently: “I’ve never really understood the term ‘social mobility’ because that implies you want to get out of somewhere and go somewhere else … And I think that there is a great deal to be said for making who you are something to be proud of. And if you’re working-class, not to wear that as a kind of chip on your shoulder, or even a burden that you carry around with you, but actually something that is of value, for its own sake, that says something about who you are, what your values are, where you come from.”

Nearly a century ago, the Scottish socialist John McLean said: “Rise with your class, not out of it”. My friend James should be proud of what he’s achieved, but his life story is exceptional. Social mobility provides no answers for the vast majority of working-class people. It’s time we abandoned it.

This article also appears at Comment is Free.

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