John McFall on how best to tackle the increased lack of social mobility in the UK
The American (and British) Dream that if you work hard and do the right thing then you will prosper and do better economically than your parents did, no longer applies.
Its funeral rites were performed this week by President Obama in his State of the Union Address when he said: “Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”
And so say we in Britain, where there has been a rapid increase in inequality, with us now achieving a lowly 28th out of 34 countries ranking in the OECD equality “league table”.
According to the IMF, the World Economic Forum and The Economist, inequality is now one of the top global risks.
Both Alan Milburn, as the government’s Social Mobility Czar, and former Prime Minister John Major share similar sentiments; with their view that one of the causes of deepening inequality and static social mobility in the UK is entrenched elitism.
One of the most depressing statistics on social mobility in the UK is contained in the OECD document Intergenerational Social Mobility, which considers the extent to which a son’s earnings are likely to reflect those of his father. Of all OECD countries, Britain tops the poll in demonstrating that if you have rich parents your future prosperity is more guaranteed and if you have poorer parents your future prosperity is stunted.
The political and social problems resulting from high levels of income inequality are illustrated by Michael Sandel in his book What Money Can’t Buy. He states that “at a time of rising inequality, the marketisation of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools”.
The big question for society is how do we learn to negotiate and abide by our differences and come to care for the Common Good? Given the shocking lack of mobility entrenched in British society, we need to break the glass ceiling that more and more people are coming up against in professions such as law, medicine, politics or journalism, and which he describes as having all the hallmarks of social engineering?
Change can only be effected from the highest level in government, with the Prime Minister personally taking charge of the inequality and social mobility agenda. It needs Downing Street to drive it, with all departments reporting back on what new approaches they are adopting to achieve a fairer society with equal opportunities for all – irrespective of class, income or gender.
Achieving this requires a long term agenda and the abandonment of short term, four or five year political horizons.
The problems affecting inequality and social mobility are not confined to the UK and are mirrored to varying degrees in most other countries, so international cooperation is a must if this is to be tackled.
As Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum at Davos said: “Systems that propagate inequality, or that seem unable to stem its rise, contain the seeds of their own destruction.”
To avoid such a scenario, and create pathways to increased social mobility in the UK we require not just new polices but a new mindset. It is the case that economic prosperity and social stability are two sides of the same coin. Only if they move forward in concert can we achieve a better, fairer and more prosperous society. Yes, it’s the economy; but it’s also the social, stupid.
Lord John McFall of Alcluith is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords. He tweets @McFallJF
Published 6th February 2014