Lee Cain

Westminster and the truth about the class ceiling

Lee Cain (Photo: Getty)

I come from the Lancastrian town of Ormskirk, which, though pretty, provided little in the way of opportunity or aspiration. No one in our family had been to university. I qualified for free school meals. Expectations for my future were low.

But I was lucky. I had great mentors and ended up in Downing Street. I also worked for a Prime Minister who believes in social mobility and put ‘levelling up’ at the very centre of his premiership. This was the reason I came into politics too. Boris Johnson understands that the need for social mobility is now more urgent than ever, as we emerge from lockdown.

While the food poverty debate raged last summer, and the government found itself losing a PR war with the footballer Marcus Rashford, I attended a cabinet meeting. I asked the people running the country how many of them were ever eligible for free school meals and discovered I was the only person in the room who had been. Is that the reason the government got itself in such a terrible tangle over this emotive issue? No. But would it have helped if more senior politicians had had personal experience of food poverty? Undoubtedly.

Every political leader for the past 30 years has made great promises about ending inequality, but the economic and social groups we are born into remain extremely difficult to escape. Just under 10 per cent move from the bottom fifth to the top fifth by their late thirties. In the wake of the financial crisis, the number of people exceeding or equalling their father’s pay packet at the same age dropped from 64 per cent in 2006 to 44 per cent by 2019. Generation Covid now faces a post-pandemic catastrophe, with opportunities diminishing most for those without the advantages of wealth, connections and class.

The economic and social groups we are born into remain extremely difficult to escape

The existing attainment gap between poorer and richer children is set to grow.

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