Friday, 15 April 2011

Why the Government will never understand Social Mobility

This week I wrote for Total Politics on how social mobility cannot be solved by simply throwing money at the poor. You can see my full article on the Total Politics website.

Nick Clegg might talk the talk, but improving social mobility requires a change in the structure of our society, not just a few pound notes, says Graham Jones MP

Lately the deputy prime minister has been extolling the necessity to increase social mobility. Commendable for pinpointing not just a social injustice but an economic handicap.

Under Labour the rich got richer and the poor got richer. Trickle-up is a concept engrained in working people. They understand that money rises to the top and whilst laudable the aims of enriching the lives of the lowest income strata, the consequences appear to a widening gap between rich and poor.

Figures by Lancashire County Council show that this gap increased considerably during the banking crisis when household incomes in wealthy areas were growing by a staggering 5% plus, outstripping inflation whilst the poorest households paid for the economic crises with income falls of 7 to 9% or more in some cases.

Internationally the OECD report on Britain’s slip down the educational league tables was notable for its analysis. Not that children from wealthy or middle income families were slipping, Britain’s education system, particularly its universities are amongst the best in the world. But instead that the slippage is as a result of poorer children in other countries doing far better. Britain’s poor are stagnating academically.

In talking up social mobility - the government's answer driven by Nick Clegg has been to raise the base rate of tax so that poor income families keep an extra £200 per year before being taxed. A figure put in the shade by the £450 VAT increase the average family will have to pay due to the governments VAT rise. A rise Nick Clegg and David Cameron both described as regressive. Hitting the poorest hardest.

Increasing the tax code sits thinly and in stark contrast to other key Liberal principles that have been abandoned. Tuition fee's, scrapping of EMA, cuts to public services, particularly youth services.

Such fiscal measures fail to address people's fading aspirations. The changing face of society that leaves people isolated and feeling further removed from the haves'.

Such isolation from opportunity, a widening chasm of lifestyles has manifested itself  in the rise of the political extremism, a rise in apathy and a social crises of the poor. All rooted in economic post industrial political settlement. A market-led experiment introduced by Margaret Thatcher where globalisation has been merciless in reducing opportunity. Reality TV voyeurism offering the only length of bridge to the aspirations of the monied.

Many more new barriers stand in the way to social mobility. Increasing dependency juxtapositioned against increasing relative poverty. Take house prices for example. Never has aspiration been further removed through income disparity. Broken communities, stagnating low value added employment, uninformative and escapist entertainment, family breakdown. The breakdown of industrial society.

The editor of a regional newspaper once told me: "The working classes have been battered and are too tired to engage in social mobility". The post industrial era has also brought back an underclass. A section of society lost beyond individualism and self survival where the first rule of life isn't right or wrong but self gain by any means.

It's important to define social mobility to measure it. We think we know what we mean but the government and the deputy prime minister seem to have gravitated towards income as an appropriate definition.

It is more fruitful to ask the question why don't poor children from places like my constituency of Hyndburn succeed like their wealthy southern counterparts?

Poor housing for sure. Excess damp and cold. A house that isn't a home. Poor income and poor diet. Economic disadvantages compounded from generation to generation. London centric economy and governance. Poor transport and lack of clear role models. Lack of creativity and creative thinking. Lack of ambition and poverty of aspiration.

£200 extra in a family budget will not fix these. Poverty of the mind can't be fixed with pound notes.

There is a view that the chasm between haves and have nots is becoming wider and birthright predetermines life’s outcomes. Better off parents will always be able to navigate their child’s path to better life, secure employment, good career, and good health - that poor families are predestined to live out the life chances of their parents and grandparents.

Education itself needs to be creative and broaden the minds of the poor. Arts, humanities and the 'ologies are as essential as out of school activities. School trips provide a visual, aural and cultural feast to which the poorest consume the greatest stimulus.

This is above all things a battle between the market liberalists and the caring state. Social mobility and greater economic prosperity are not issues that the right will ever have answers too. Only socialists understand that Britain’s poor are our passport to prosperity and that social mobility isn't individualistic opportunity but a structural change in society.