Realpolitik will trump social mobility in the 2017 General Election, argues Lee Elliot Major
One consequence of Britain’s low social mobility is an increasingly detached political elite unable to deliver on their promises to improve opportunities for the rest of the nation. Over the coming weeks we will hear much rhetoric about improving social mobility for people on low and moderate incomes. Education policies will be advocated, apparently based on incontrovertible evidence. Yet the 2017 General Election will be won with eye-catching proposals that sway middle class voters. The hard psephological truth is there is little benefit in courting the electorate at the bottom of society’s ladder.
The Conservatives will push their flagship grammar schools which Theresa May believes will help transform Britain into a great meritocracy. This has echoes of John Major’s commitment for a “grammar school in every village” in his doomed 1997 election campaign. The problem is that current grammars do not attract poorer pupils. Great schools they may be. Engines of social mobility there are not.
Reducing class sizes meanwhile is a classic Labour ploy, used to great effect in their landslide victory of 1997. Jeremy Corbyn claimed that pupils are “crammed into classrooms like sardines”. Yet the evidence is very fishy. Class sizes in state schools would need to be dramatically cut to change classroom teaching behaviour for the better. And that is the real challenge: improving the quality of teaching in our schools. If politicians were serious about helping disadvantaged pupils we would also see more emphasis on early years’ education than extra child care.
Politicians gladly back efforts to improve absolute social mobility – lifting opportunities for all compared with previous generations. Far less palatable is the zero sum game of relative social mobility: determining who secures a particular rank in society. For every winner, there is a loser; for every talented child from a poorer background climbing the social ladder, there is a middle class child tumbling downwards. It’s a brave candidate who signs up to social mobility policies with teeth, amid a world of shrinking opportunities and bleak prospects for national economic growth.
Using lotteries for example to settle who gains places at oversubscribed schools would curtail the shady tactics of sharp elbowed middle classes jumping the queue. And banning unpaid internships would level the playing field during the first critical steps on the career ladder. David Cameron found such polices too hard to swallow.
Raising inheritance tax is another issue where rhetoric and real-politic clash. Growing divides in home ownership and financial assets are adding a new dimension to the inequalities driving an increasingly rigged and rigid society. Yet during the last General Election the major political parties were falling over themselves to minimise the tax paid on the substantial wealth handed down from one middle class generation to the next.
Once in power, will our political masters deliver anyway? In the 2010 the Liberal Democrats vowed to oppose any hike in university fees. Then came a spectacular U-turn in Coalition. (The jury is still out on what impact higher fees have had on disadvantaged students). The Cinderella further education sector meanwhile where most poorer students end up, has been left bereft of clear, consistent policies by successive Governments. One former adviser has said that FE falls victim to ‘policy churn’ – a endless series of ill-thought through announcements. Few ministers or journalists know much about the sector having come from the same elite academic routes. That I’m afraid is the political cost of low social mobility.