Social mobility under Covid-19

17 July 2020

Labour needs to offer a different take on social mobility, and to find this fast, or it may win the social and economic battle where Covid-19 is concerned, but lose the war

Graeme Atherton

The economic and social impact of Covid-19 on the communities whose incomes are lowest and where disadvantage is the highest is becoming clearer by the day. Labour is right to prioritise the need for immediate investment and a focus on jobs in the areas most affected by the pandemic. But going forward it will need to do more than this. It has to offer people not just a means of keeping afloat but the opportunity to progress. However, it also has to find a way of describing what progress means in a way that resonates with those it is trying to support and by framing policies that will address the real problems that exist. The problem is that the notion that has been used most frequently to capture what progress means – namely, social mobility – doesn’t do this. Labour needs something else, or to offer a different take on social mobility, and to find this fast, or it may win the social and economic battle where Covid-19 is concerned, but lose the war.

From being primarily a concept in sociology, social mobility has inexorably risen up the policy agenda over the past 20 years in the UK. Every Prime Minister from Tony Blair to Theresa May has felt the need to commit to increasing social mobility. Since 2011 there has been a Social Mobility Commission based in the Department of Education, set up by ex-Health Minister Alan Milburn, and a slew of charities have been established that focus almost exclusively on promoting  social mobility – including one set up by the ex-Education Minister Justine Greening. When social mobility first rose to political prominence it was associated with the ‘diamond in the rough’ idea, of enabling bright young people from lower-income backgrounds to progress to selective universities and then on to professional occupations. As the phrase gained popularity its interpretation widened to move closer to its academic definition i.e. to achieve inter-generational progress. In political terms, social mobility amounts to an appeal to the belief that parents want their kids to do better than they did themselves. This idea was summed up for Labour by Ed Millband in 2011 when he flirted with the idea of a ‘British promise’ as an equivalent to the American Dream. However, rather than stopping there throughout the 2010s, partly due to the work of the Commission for Social Mobility itself, which has produced a stream of excellent reports, that highlight some of the economic and social differences between social groups across education and employment. This way, social mobility – or the lack thereof – has become a short-hand term for anything associated with inequality.

All this work, and the motivation behind it, is usually genuine in its attempt to address the problems caused by endemic inequality and its worsening over the last ten years. But the term social mobility may hamper as much as help these efforts. Politicians from all parties have steadfastly ignored the possibility (and indeed inevitable corollary) of downward mobility if upward social mobility is to occur. Nor does it mean anything to those most affected by inequality. Indeed, it may even by resisted by them. There is an acute awareness in such communities that the kind of middle income, semi-professional/professional jobs that are necessary in high numbers for upward social mobility to occur at scale are not there and are not likely to be in the foreseeable future whatever government is in power. This is especially the case in the context of the pandemic and the economic aftershock that will likely come in its wake. The policy focus for social mobility in its recent golden age have often focused on addressing gaps in educational performance and progression. The view has been that it is such inequalities that are the major barrier to upward social mobility. The work of the Commission for example, is heavily centred on reform of the education system. However, without the kind of jobs described above for successful graduates to go into, then, as presently understood, upward social mobility will not occur, so closing the attainment gap in education will not necessarily be effective – but that is not to say that the attempt to close the gap is not worthwhile in itself.

The second problem with social mobility is that it associates progress with movement – be that physical i.e. by leaving the area you grew up in for education or employment, or cultural, which can imply that one leaves one’s family, community and identity behind to get on. There is an almost universal desire for progress amongst those in lower-income communities but the majority want opportunities in their own areas, consistent with their values and lifestyles. This does not mean that the kind of long-range social mobility associated with those from low income backgrounds going on to selective universities should be discouraged. But relentlessly associating progress with social mobility can only serve to be construed by some communities that they are somehow inadequate. It is noticeable that the present government has been far less eager to talk about social mobility – preferring to use their own term ‘levelling up’. This may primarily be seen as an example of governments wanting to frame long-standing problems through a language of their own making. Levelling up may mean no more to people in low-income communities than social mobility does. It could also suggest though that the right are also aware that the term social mobility may not work effectively as an umbrella term to describe and understand the challenges facing many of their newly acquired constituents.

Labour’s response to this issue should start from a better diagnosis of the problems and a clearer understanding of how to deal with the issues. Building greater value into what are at present under-valued occupations is one starting point. Covid-19 has highlighted a raft of occupations whose value to society has hitherto gone under-appreciated. Retail, social care and logistics are three examples of such areas whose pay, conditions and qualification levels could all be drastically improved. The aim should be to radically expand the notion of what is defined as a ‘good job’. This approach reflects the reality of future labour markets better than the pretence that huge numbers of ‘middle class’ occupations will be created for everyone to progress to. There will be more high-skilled jobs in the future but many jobs that are at present often seen as ‘low value’ will remain. A forensic analysis of which lower paid jobs can provide opportunities for progress and which do not – as has been done by researchers from the Brookings Institute in the US– would be valuable starting point.

Where education is concerned a shift in focus from addressing gaps in educational attainment at school level alone to the life course could be effective. The social mobility discourse remains heavily weighted toward addressing gaps in school level achievement – particularly from ages 0-7. Early years provision is crucial, as is lifelong learning. Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission set up in 2019 produced a blueprint for how to expand such provision in their report The Future is ours to Learn’, released in the run up to the last election. Central to the vision of the commission was a universal, publicly-funded right to learn throughout life. This right to learn was supported by an entitlement to a set number of credits equivalent to 6 years of post-secondary learning over the life course. This entitlement makes even more sense in the Covid-19 era than when the report was written way back in 2019! Combining lifelong learning together with a focus on good jobs a potential ‘people centred approach’ to defining what progress means in lower-income communities post Covid-19 could provide a progressive way forward. This approach contrasts with the more ‘project-based approach’ of the current government based around infrastructure projects, the actual long-term benefits of which are not entirely clear.

Education and employment will need to be connected to housing, transport, benefits and digital access to develop a consistent and coherent narrative on progress. The further work required here should be resolutely bottom-up, starting with communities themselves defining the issues of opportunity and progress that they value and want, rather than beginning with a laudable but abstract idea such as social mobility which originates in academia. Covid-19 coupled with the huge swing that Labour needs to gain by the next election means that this work needs to start now. How Labour defines its agenda for social and economic progress may not only shape its response to Covid-19 but may determine whether or not it can return to power this decade.