Equality: The elephant in the room of social mobility

If you look hard at the launch of the Coalition’s social mobility strategy today, you might just make out a fairly large elephant in the room. And the elephant is Equality.

Without tackling inequality, social mobility risks being reduced to giving a few people a helping hand up an ever lengthening ladder The UK remains the sixth richest nation on the planet – but one increasingly characterized by inequality between rich and poor. As the National Equality Panel revealed last year, the net household wealth of the richest 10% is now almost 100 times higher than that of the poorest tenth of the population – a gap higher than at any time for at least the past 30 years.

Yet in all the talk of social mobility (and child poverty, when that gets a look in) politicians seem curiously silent when it comes to the E word.

As Julian Dobson has observed: “Ministers often talk of Britain as a meritocracy where the deserving rise to the top, and, by implication, those who do not rise to the top are undeserving. The flaw in this thinking is that it equates access to opportunities, which is a good thing, with an increase in opportunities, which would be a far better thing. To judge a government’s record by social mobility is like saying a lottery is OK if everyone has the same chance of winning it; it ignores the fact that in life, as in lotteries, there are far more losers than winners. A much better goal is reducing the number of losers”.

In more unequal societies, the stakes of ‘failure’ are much higher. This is why middle class parents are prepared to fight much harder to get their kids into the ‘right’ schools, and why it is consequently much harder for poorer families to fight their way up the ladder.

So lets just reacquaint ourselves with these fine words, uttered in 2009:

“Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator. In The Spirit Level, they show that per capita GDP is much less significant for a country’s life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest in the population. So the best indicator of a country’s rank on these measures of general well-being is not the difference in wealth between them, but the difference in wealth within them.”

And who uttered these? Our very own Prime Minister, David Cameron MP, in his Hugo Young lecture. So never mind Nick’s strategy for promoting greater social mobility, I’m still waiting for Dave’s strategy for achieving greater equality.

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2 Responses to Equality: The elephant in the room of social mobility

  1. Andy says:

    This was exactly my thought on hearing the news this morning, Niall, thanks for articulating it. It just seems ludicrous to me that everything is constantly framed within this same ghastly system that actually demands inequality – far more ‘losers’ than ‘winners’, whoever they happen to be. Also, we need a system far less concerned with competition, a system that IS actually defined by who you know because relationships and people are a priority, rather than corporate efficiency and individualism. Just a thought.

  2. Tidd says:

    And as we all know, the only deserving people in this nation of ours are “hardworking families”.

    Of course, no politician that utters this mantra stops to consider why so many families are “hardworking”. Could it be that they work so hard in order to feed and educate their kids while at the same time chasing an aspirational dream that, despite the constant bombardment of TV adverts and the nimble footwork of politicians, is fast-fleeing over the horizon?

    And then there is the nearly 40% of households now comprising people living alone. Politicians know they are there, but somehow they don’t sound so CUDDLY, so PROTESTANT, as “hardworking families”. Strange, isn’t it, how Mrs Thatcher yuppified and encouraged them, but now it seems they do not exist.

    As for those of us who are disabled – God help us. Not only are we betrayed by the self-same Cameron who was father to a severely disabled child, we are now persecuted by the employees of rich little piggies like Emma Harrison, and have to listen to IDS telling us that “work makes you free”. Roll on Auschwitz. Arbeit macht frei, indeed.

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