UK General Election: Why Theresa May’s approach to social mobility is incoherent

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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a campaign speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in central London on 5 June 2017 © REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Social mobility is an apology for inequality.

It is so at least in the mouth of Theresa May and her party, which since her ascent to power in the wake of Brexit has pledged to transform Britain into ‘the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.’ On paper, this is a noble aim, seeking to ensure that few obstacles if any will stop poorer children from growing into richer adults.

However, on both political and philosophical levels, May's goal is something of a questionable and even incoherent one. Not because of something inherent to the idea of social mobility itself: rather, it’s because of the way she and the Conservatives plan to bring social mobility to a society that's fundamentally unequal – and will remain so for the foreseeable future if they win the election.

Her vague plans for improved social mobility were first announced when she assumed the premiership on 13 July, yet they’ve now been repeated in her party’s manifesto. It states that a re-elected Conservative government will ‘overcome social divisions by giving people real opportunity and making Britain the world’s Great Meritocracy.’ This will see them do things such as ‘lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools’, build a ‘specialist maths school in every major city in England,’ and ‘produce the best programme of learning and training for people in work […] in the developed world.’

‘Since at least the Thatcher era, the Conservative Party has seen inequality as a “right”’

Such proposals come in addition to the 12 ‘opportunity areas’ that were initially outlined in January, areas which will share £72 million (US$93 million) in funding for ‘local education providers and communities to address the biggest challenges’ they each face.

Together, they make for an ostensibly robust package of measures, yet unfortunately they face two fatal obstacles: one in the form of Britain’s high levels of income and wealth inequality, and the other in the form of the Conservatives’ ideological unwillingness to do anything about these levels.

To begin with, income inequality has remained stubbornly high ever since the ‘large increases’ of the 1980s, with Britain’s Gini coefficient (after housing costs) moving from 0.27 per cent in 1970 to the high of 0.40 in 2007 (it’s now 0.39). (The Gini coefficient calculates the level of inequality in a society. It ranges from 0 to 1, and the smaller the coefficient, the less unequal a country is.) The persistence of such inequality is serious enough on its own, insofar as it means that 3.9 million British children – 28 per cent – currently live in poverty. But also it creates severe problems for achieving the kind of social mobility the Conservatives want, largely because inequality means that richer children and adults are always better placed to take advantage of any initiatives intended to drive mobility.

This comes out most clearly in the case of the much-heralded return of the grammar school. The Government has assured the public that any new selective school ‘must meet certain conditions such as guaranteeing places for children from disadvantaged backgrounds’, yet the fact that it has to ‘guarantee’ a subset of places for such children is, at bottom, an admission that all other places will generally be won by kids from more privileged backgrounds. In other words, that there will be a quota for poorer students highlights how, fundamentally, the grammar school system is not only a reflection of inequality, but also a reinforcement of it. What's more, the policy of quotas shows how principles of social mobility and meritocracy will mostly serve to whitewash the grammar school, while doing little to change the underlying reasons for why certain kinds of students are more likely to be selected for enrolment than others.

Recent studies conducted by researchers from Bristol University, Warwick University and University College London have found that students from the most deprived families have only a 6 per cent chance of attending a grammar school. By contrast, pupils from households in the top 10 per cent socioeconomic bracket have ‘a 50 per cent or better chance of attending a grammar’. Those in the top 1 per cent enjoy an 80 per cent chance. And while it can be argued that those poorer students who do manage to gain admission end up doing better than they would have otherwise, there are surveys from the likes of the Education Policy Institute which show that there are ‘small attainment losses for those not attending selective schools – losses which will be greatest amongst poor children.’

‘Any Tory initiative to accelerate social mobility will have at least as much of a negative effect as a positive one’

Such research – on the persistence of an educational hierarchy derived from income inequality – is bad news for the Conservatives’ social mobility policies. If nothing else, the findings indicate how any attempt to create more opportunities for poorer children will have no or perhaps even the opposite effect: as long as financial inequalities persist, more affluent children will always remain in a better position to take advantage of them, regardless of whether they involve selective schools, youth programs, or extracurricular activities.

Related: Read The Equality Effect: How more equal societies also become happier and more developed, by Oxford University’s Danny Dorling.

Other parties might seek to remove the obstacles presented by inequality to social mobility by reducing inequality itself. But this course of action is anathema to the Conservative Party, who since at least the Thatcher era have seen inequality as a ‘right’.

This is the party who has long believed that the ability to hold onto unequal sums of wealth is necessary if individuals are to invest and to innovate, which is why they've mostly shied away from progressive taxation rates. Even in their election manifesto, it's stated, ‘The Conservatives will always be the party that keeps tax as low as possible and spends the proceeds responsibly,’ which is an indirect way of declaring that the next parliament most likely won't see them reverse their decision to cut Corporation Tax to 17 per cent, or redistribute wealth to any significant degree.

‘As long as financial inequalities persist, more affluent children will always remain in a better position to take advantage of existing opportunities’

As such, it doesn’t entirely make sense that they'd seek to increase social mobility. Because the only genuine way to increase social mobility is by reducing inequality, but as far as the Conservatives’ politics are concerned, this would reduce the ‘ability’ of the rich to drive the economy.

This conflict with the party’s basic ideology underlines how Theresa May’s social mobility rhetoric is politically incoherent. Even disregarding her party's core beliefs for a moment, social mobility would still be a questionable concept in a country where inequality is high. Even if it were possible to create a society where infant/adolescent membership of a socioeconomic class had no causal relationship with the social strata people go on to occupy as adults, this still wouldn’t justify these social strata, at least not if they involved the kind of disparities in affluence that see 22 per cent and 20 per cent of the population living in relative and absolute poverty. Just because the upper strata of society include and exclude all kinds of people in equal measure won't by itself change the fact that, for those who remain or are pushed into lower socioeconomic levels, life will involve hardship. From relying on food banks in increasing numbers to tens of thousands of households becoming homeless, people would still have to suffer as a result of unequal distributions of wealth, and it’s hard to see just how an increase in social mobility and fluidity would suddenly make such a scenario acceptable.

This reiterates how May's vision of social mobility is incoherent. Just as importantly, it points to how the Conservatives’ apparent push for social mobility is a largely tokenistic enterprise. Ultimately, it’s one intended to quell much of the discontentment and deprivation that resulted in Brexit.

To be fair, this is understandable, since David Cameron was to a large extent ousted from power for underestimating the groundswell of disaffection that existed disproportionately among the less educated and those living in deprived, urban housing estates. Given that their lack of social mobility was in part responsible for swinging the Brexit vote towards the Leave side and thereby bringing down a government, it’s not surprising that she should try to appease unrest by making it seem as though she and her party will do everything they can to improve social mobility.

But it’s clear that such efforts will never rise beyond being more than a ritualistic facade. Even if the Conservative manifesto declares, ‘we must redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, can have a world-class education’, it’s highly unlikely that every person can have such an education when marked differences in wealth mean that financially comfortable pupils are more likely to be accepted to selective schools.

Because concentrations in wealth mean that certain people have more resources at their disposal when it comes to seizing opportunities, any Conservative initiative to accelerate social mobility will have at least as much of a negative effect as a positive one. In the end, this is why it’s fraudulent for May and Co. to claim to be the party of social mobility, and why, if they are returned to power on the basis of an avowed commitment to increasing mobility, they’ll only disappoint voters.

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