Martin Vander Weyer

Stagnant Britain

Martin Vander Weyer says that social mobility has declined under New Labour, and blames misplaced egalitarianism and hostility to competition

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What with Jamie Oliver dictating government policy last month, and Lady Isabella Hervey flaunting her tanned bod for the lads on Celebrity Love Island, you could be forgiven for thinking that social mobility in Britain, both upwards and downwards, has attained what scientists might call inertia-free perfection.

Daily observation suggests that the game of snakes and ladders between the classes has never been so vigorously played, and that the rules have been entirely rewritten. An expensive education and a father with friends in high places no longer buy you a double six to start; received pronunciation is now a positive handicap in any career in which you might ever have to open your mouth in public. In the House of Lords, there are almost twice as many classless Blair appointees as there are remaining hereditary peers. Among the British-born multimillionaires in the upper reaches of the annual Sunday Times Rich List, self-made, first-generation fortunes outnumber old money by six to one, and many of those successes have been achieved from the humblest of beginnings.

Where I live in Yorkshire, for example, we salute brothers Eddie and Malcolm Healey, worth £1.5 billion, who started with a DIY business in Hull and ended up acquiring the Marquess of Normanby’s vast Warter estate. Wherever you look, it seems, there is evidence that those with talent or ambition or both are free to rise as high they aspire — and those without are free to plunge through the threadbare safety net of privilege.

Yet the academics who study these things properly, not by anecdotal observation but by population samples reduced to mathematical formulae, take a different view. And Labour policy-makers, for all Tony Blair’s pre-election talk about ‘breaking down the barriers that stop people fulfilling their talent’, know that the data does not lie: a combination of social, economic and educational factors has actually made Britain less meritocratic on their watch, not more so. Arguably, most of the underlying causes of that trend derive from their own egalitarian policies. But they are socialists at heart, and you may be sure that their only response will be to make matters worse with more of the same.

What do the scientists tell us that is so troubling? First, that progress towards social mobility is extraordinarily slow even when it is in a positive direction. A recent study of two centuries of data by sociologists at Cardiff and Southampton found that while British society is in simple terms twice as mobile as it was 100 years ago, ‘it is likely to take another 220–250 years before there is no association between fathers’ and sons’ occupational and social positions’. And by then, they might have added, our descendants may be more worried about the mobility of melting glaciers and Daleks than about issues of class.

Secondly, and much more worryingly, work published last month for the Sutton Trust by Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin of the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance suggests that the trend has actually gone into reverse. Their study found a significantly lower degree of ‘intergenerational mobility’ (measured not by subjective class indicators such as speech patterns and golf club memberships, but simply by income levels) in Britain compared with Canada, the Nordic countries or Germany. Britain and the United States exhibit similar levels of mobility, but in the US the situation is more or less static over time, whereas here mobility has actually decreased.

Comparing ‘cohorts’ born in 1958 and 1970, the study finds that the older of the two groups — those who embarked on their adult lives at the beginning of the Thatcher era — had the better chance of migrating by their own efforts to a higher income group than that to which they were born. The younger group — whose career paths started in the recession of the early 1990s and continued into the bright new dawn of Tony Blair — have turned out to be less mobile, both upwards and downwards: those with high-income parents are more likely to have stayed in a high-income bracket themselves.

The LSE team focuses the blame on education. ‘Part of the reason for this decline in mobility has been the increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment.... This was because additional opportunities to stay in education at both age 16 and age 18 disproportionately benefited those from better-off backgrounds.’

Analysis of a third and younger cohort, born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, showed ‘a narrowing of the gap between the staying-on rates at 16 between rich and poor children, but a further widening of the gap at 18’. Bearing in mind the government’s target that by 2010 50 per cent of all young people should go on to higher education, perhaps the most telling statistic is this one: the proportion of people from the poorest fifth of society who get a degree has risen in the past generation from 6 per cent to 9 per cent, but for the wealthiest fifth it has risen from 20 per cent to 46 per cent. That can readily be confirmed, in my experience, by encounters with the student population of universities such as Newcastle, now full of cheerful public-school types who divide their time between nightclubs and Countryside Alliance demos.

So the government is well on the way to hitting its target for the stratum that it least wants or needs to help, and the LSE team is forced to conclude that ‘the big expansion in university participation has ...reinforced immobility across generations’. The government’s response has been perhaps the purest of all examples of New Labour at work.

Does anyone seriously doubt, for example, that A-level standards have been progressively dumbed down — partly to create the illusion of ever-improving results and partly because, in the face of union hostility, it is too troublesome to weed out the worst teachers and incentivise the best ones? State-sector teaching has effectively abandoned the pursuit of excellence in favour of an egalitarian standard of mediocrity which every pupil can reach. Indeed, any mention of academic excellence runs straight into the ideological no-go barrier of selection. And what does Education Secretary Ruth Kelly have to say about that? ‘Comprehensive schools have ...done well for many but they do not seem to have been the universal engine of social mobility and equality that [their inventor Antony] Crosland hoped they would be.... This does not mean we should return to selection, nor will we.’

Why not, Secretary of State? What’s wrong with giving brighter pupils from poorer homes a better chance to make the most of their talents by enabling them to learn among other pupils of similar ability and aspiration? Look at the example of Northern Ireland where — despite the efforts of former education minister Martin McGuinness to abolish them — grammar schools still flourish, and last summer produced GCSE results across the province that were 10 per cent better (measured by A to C grades achieved) than those in England. Labour’s answer to this embarrassment is not to learn the lesson it offers but to abolish Northern Ireland’s 11-plus selection test: as Michael Howard said in a speech at the Belfast Royal Academy in October, ‘The reality is that ours is a country where people are being held back by politicians who are stoking the politics of envy.’

That is the key to this government’s attitude to education. What was Gordon Brown’s notorious intervention in 2000 in the case of Laura Spence, a comprehensive pupil who was turned down to read medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford, if not a crude appeal to class envy? British universities are now beset by ‘access targets’ , monitored by an ‘access regulator’ who was described last year by Michael Beloff, president of Trinity College, Oxford, as ‘the least popular public official since the post of public hangman became redundant’.

Despite strenuous efforts to comply, Oxford undershot its target for state school entrants last year by 20 per cent, and faced a consequent threat of funding cuts. It is now talking seriously of going independent — which with a well-endowed American-style scholarship scheme might actually make it more accessible rather than less, but is the opposite of what the government wants. And as the LSE report observes, the introduction of university top-up fees will add to the disincentives for poorer applicants — though no doubt the government is ready to deal with that by raising the ‘access targets’ and accusing the universities of elitism.

And what other aids to self-improvement do New Labour’s gurus have in mind? We learned at the weekend that Lord Giddens, Tony Blair’s intellectual mentor and the very inventor of the Third Way, is about to make the case (in a book called The New Egalitarianism) for increases in inheritance and capital transfer tax, in order to equalise the next generation’s life chances in the most confiscatory way. That would certainly have an impact on mobility statistics, by making it tougher for the children of the wealthiest stratum to remain there in later life.

The proposal would be so unpopular with middle-class voters that it is highly unlikely to happen. But in any case, it is hard to see how it would encourage the lower strata, Labour’s own core constituency, to haul themselves upwards. Those whose motivation is to accumulate capital to pass on to their own children would be directly discouraged. But perhaps that would not trouble this government so long as the statistics looked better. And perhaps in the darkest dungeons of Downing Street there are pollsters cynical enough to point out that too much upward mobility would create a whole new generation of Thatcherites, who would hasten the demise of New Labour.

The only government initiative since the election which might do something to help mobility is Gordon Brown’s shared ownership scheme to help first-time house-buyers who have been priced out of the market. The right of council-house tenants to buy their homes at discounted prices, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980, was probably the greatest single blow for upward mobility in modern times. Labour did not like that one either, but if the Chancellor fulfils his pledge to help 100,000 families on to the housing ladder during this Parliament, he will also have offered them an upward route on our social snakes-and-ladders board, because home ownership confers a certain solidity of personal circumstances — and, barring market crashes, financial security — which can only improve the chances of future betterment.

There is another factor which confers the solidity on which springboards can be built, but again it is one to which this government seems reluctant to do more than pay faint lip service hedged about with political correctness: stable family life, possibly even extending to marriage. As Ferdinand Mount wrote in Mind the Gap (2004), his study of ‘the new class divide in Britain’: ‘The state has progressively eroded to vanishing point the married couple’s tax allowance and removed almost all other preferential treatment for the married state.... This is clearly insane.’

And so it is. The point is not a moralistic one about matrimony but a statistical one about the likelihood of a family remaining together as a unit throughout a child’s years in education. Loving parents, financial security, good teachers, challenging examinations, healthy competition and worthwhile incentives are what any child needs to make the most of natural ability and start to climb the anthill of life. In the modern world, what he or she does not need is a cut-glass accent or a command of bourgeois etiquette: Jamie Oliver is today’s ultimate upwardly mobile (and notably uxorious) role model. That is unreservedly to be welcomed, but the attention the media give to success stories such as his has deceived us into thinking that they illustrate a wider trend.

They do not and, thanks in large part to New Labour’s spinelessness and misplaced egalitarianism, most of Jamie’s classmates are condemned to a life in which, as of old, ‘disadvantage reinforces itself across the generations’. That last phrase, by the way, is a quotation from Stephen Byers in 2003: there could hardly be a clearer admission of failure.