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My Free Society Column - May

Social mobility and the isolated political class

Wednesday May 18, 2011

Jason Smith reads the government’s latest report on social mobility and concludes that it tells us more about modern politicians than the people they try to govern.
Nick Clegg’s Cabinet Office report Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility published in April is an achievement in itself. The ability to write an eighty-seven page document and not actually say anything of substance must be considered an accomplishment of sorts.
It has – as all government output must have given today’s managerial-style politics – a liberal scattering of buzzwords: ‘robust mechanisms’, ‘external scrutiny’, ‘leading indicators’. But when it comes to setting out a proposal for making society better, in other words a policy, it falls so short of the mark it’s doubtful it ever crossed the starting line.
This is unfortunate because the report is trying to address a real issue. Social mobility in Britain was worse for children born in 1970 than it was for those born in 1958. Children born to poorer households post 1970 are less likely to have entered higher education and gone on to get professional jobs. In other words movement between social classes stagnated in this period. Higher levels of public investment over the last decade are not expected to result in any significant improvement. What could the problem be?
The report does show the direction of the Coalition’s thinking, and it would not sound more New Labour-ish if it included a scandal involving Peter Mandelson. It makes explicit the current political elite’s view of the masses. People are unable to play a productive role in society because they are “often trapped by addiction, debt, educational failure, family breakdown and welfare dependency”. It is clear, then, why Britain is failing in the social mobility stakes – British people are the problem.
In order to put us right the government is recruiting an additional 4,200 health visitors. This will more than double the number of families who can be ‘helped’ as part of the Health Visitor Implementation Plan 2011-2015. The initiative will therefore counteract the negative influence that exists on such an important national asset as British children – their parents.
The report quite rightly points out that people do not want government to tell them how to raise and love their children. But it then goes on to say that the government would like the provision of parenting advice to be considered the norm. In short this document represents not so much a strategy for doing anything in particular, but more of a thought exercise which concludes that government needs to save children from their parents.
It doesn’t stop there though. The ‘Adulthood’ section makes it clear that intervention is necessary in every stage of life. Some people manage to make it to adulthood without becoming educated professionals, therefore what these people need is a kind of ‘Every Child Matters’, but for 30+ year-olds. The logic is if you’re not an educated professional then you must be a drug addicted, unemployed, feral failure.
The most striking thing about this report is the lack of imagination it shows amongst our rulers. They are so insular as a group, the social strata in which they mingle is so narrow and they have so little connection to the electorate, that they imagine everyone who has not chosen a route familiar to them to be a problem. The political class is becoming more like an isolated clique of the kind more usually found in totalitarian dictatorships than in a democracy. They lack a connection to us and therefore blame us for their own failings. Social mobility has failed in that it hasn’t created more people like them.
So this report shows an altogether different failure. As Brendan O’Neill has argued on Spiked, in the past our leaders cut their political teeth working amongst people or a community for years and represented their interests in the centre of political life; today they are handed a safe seat in order to provide them with a democratic gloss. The public are not interacted with, understood, talked to, taken seriously – they are merely looked upon as the mound upon which a member of the oligarchy might build his palace. Having occupied the aloof, closed-door world of think tanks, finance or EU institutions, insulated from popular pressure, today’s politicians fear and distrust the electorate.
This, in part, explains why the AV referendum and discussion seemed so remote from people’s everyday concerns. We were arguing over the system by which votes should be cast and counted when the real problem is the lack of any coherent political ideas by which to govern society. In place of having ideas and policies for improving society, today’s political class blame the electorate for their own failings as leaders.
Jason Smith is convenor of Birmingham Salon and a member of the Battle of Ideas organising committee


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