Off Message: Ed Miliband subtly attacks the politics of social mobility – and rightly so

This post was written by Reuben on May 21, 2012
Posted Under: Class

Today Ed Miliband spoke at the Sutton Trust’s annual conference on social mobility.

I must admit that the politics of social mobility has always left me rather cold. To put it quite bluntly, when a banker or lawyer can earn 100 times more than the person who cleans their office, this situation raises far bigger and more important questions than whether or not both parties achieved their respective positions on “merit”. Such a situation ought to anger any decent and civilized person, regardless of whether both parties had an equal opportunity to rise to the top.

And that is why I was mildly gratified by Ed Miliband’s approach to the whole occassion. Yes he started off with the usual ritual, commending the Sutton Trust for doing such important work (they don’t). But he then proceeded to turn the politics of social mobility, if not on it’s head, then certainly upon it’s side.

I believe in expanding access to higher education.

But the question we must all answer is what happens to those who don’t go to university?

Social mobility must not be just about changing the odds that young people from poor backgrounds will make it to university.

That really matters.

But we also have to improve opportunities for everyone, including those who don’t go to university

We must reject the snobbery that says the only route to social mobility runs through University.

As if only one kind of pathway to success matters.

In Germany, middle-class parents boast about their kids doing great apprenticeships.

In Britain, too often people think that if they don’t go to university, they are written off by society.

We must have a better offer to those young people.

In other words, offering opportunities to all who possess the “right” academic abilities is simply not good enough. People who may not be cut out to be financiers or management consultants are citizens too.

Yet, right now, Britain’s lopsided economy is structured in such a way as to reward a very narrow range of skills and abilities. And this, I’m afraid, bring’s us to the limitations of Miliband’s speech. The problem, Ed said, was one of “snobbery”. In Germany, he noted, middle class parents are proud to see their children go down skilled vocational routes. And the solution he offered was far greater investment in education.

Yet the narrow range of opportunities that exist in Britain today cannot simply be understood as cultural malady – that is to say, to a problem of “snobbery”. Nor can the problem be solved through greater investment in education.

At route, this is a problem of trade, deindustrialisation, and over-specialisation. It is all well to invest in training highly skilled engineers. Yet the capacity of such engineers to benefit for their skills will be limited so long as the economy remains so heavily centred around financial services. Today, a man or woman can be very skilled at, say, building trains. And yet, in the current order of things, they may find it easier to find work offering menial services to highly paid London professionals.

We cannot, therefore, even think about how we are properly going to broaden out opportunity without finding ways to broaden out the base of the economy. To do so will necessitate a serious revision of the way in which the economy is governed. The allocation of scarce investment funds cannot be left to the market. The government must take an active role in nurturing, and yes even creating, those industries that we want to see.

And yes, we must be willing to consider protection, if not on a British level, then certainly on a pan-European level. We cannot deny people the ability to put their vocational skills into practice simply because somebody half way across the world is willing to do their work for a tenth of their wages. (And this, incidently, is why the upcoming Euro-Indian Free Trade Agreement will move us in exactly the wrong direction).

So yes, props to Ed for challenging the narrowly concieved politics of social mobility, and for asserting that fairness is about more than rewarding a narrow range of academic abilities, irrespective of background. Now, however, he needs to come up with a bold economic plan that is capable of supporting his social and moral vision.

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Reader Comments

I’m torn.

I agree with what he said here but am worried about what he means. Going to university does not make you a better person and choosing other paths should be fine, there are plenty of ways of being a productive member of society.


Am I being entirely cynical in thinking that Ed Miliband is not entirely uncomfortable with tuition fees, the end of the EMA and creation of student loads which may well restrict access to university for poorer people.

Is it wholly wrong of me to think that this might be an ideological gloss on lowering people’s expectations rather than raising the status of those who do apprenticeships, etc.

Written By Jim Jepps on May 21st, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

A few points:
1) Stop referring to those people who make large profits from the system as it stands as “earning”. If you happen to have one of those well-remunerated roles in society that generally involves sitting in an office making strategic decisions for companies and getting paid in shares you are “profiting”. The notion that, for example, some investment bankers “earn” £10m per annum, that this can be described as a salary and bonus, already makes a concession too far in the direction of the ideology of social mobility.
2) What Miliband says about Germany simply isn’t true. What can be said is that they saw wage suppression for many years before the crisis, but this was already by the mid-2000s accompanied by a popular rhetoric of misery around “Generation Praktikum” [The generation of interns]. Already youth unemployment was high, and the productivity of large swathes of the population existed in unpaid roles, and elsewhere through the Zivildienst (the alternative to national service which involves working in the public sector for very low wages, and can include all things from working in schools and hospitals, to working for charities, to street-sweeping.)
3) The lamentable nature of our crisis, and the huge recomposition of capital that began (at least in the West) in the mid-1970s, and ranged through the destruction of heavy industry in the UK through to the 1990s, ought not to be combated with fantasies of a golden age of industry. If anything the 1940s-1960s was the blip in long economic history, and it would be more productive for the left to consider why a relatively short space of time (which happened to end in a massive clusterfuck of a crisis, but of course that was “unrelated” has been transformed into a monolithic truth about the possibilities of capitalism in providing full employment, and happy, steady, sustainable social reproduction.) It’s also worth dwelling on the fact that people who make this type of anachronistic argument wish forever to step outside history, and to see the various recompositions of capital, the destruction of industry, as mere degeneration of an ideal. Suddenly the arena of knowledge is filled completely with the ideal, and its degeneration, which as we know from Marx is very much part of its constitution, is left outside.
4) It isn’t as if the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t explore this degeneration, and the end of high industry in the West, looking for the place for leftists to stand. And it’s also not as though the history of the struggles between labour and capital have been either empty or backward-looking for the last 50 years, unlike your account which is.

Written By Jacob on May 21st, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

I tend to agree with most of Jacob’s criticisms, and I’m sure Jim is right that Milliband is manoeuvring towards accepting student fees in order to appear to save cash (because its likely to be a perversely popular policy).

Though I feel Jacob’s point 3 is broadly right, it’s surely overstated? In pleasanter daydreams I imagine a goody-good Crippsian government eking out a relatively happy generation of social democracy while working towards a fairer less doom-laden system…

But either way even Reuben’s modest proposal concludes with the phrase ‘bold economic vision’ and I can’t help but think –

“….if you want to be really sure that the Minister doesn’t accept it you must say the decision is courageous.
Bernard: And that’s worse than controversial?
Sir Humphrey: Controversial only means this will lose you votes, courageous means this will lose you the election.”

And I sincerely doubt we have any politicians brave enough to challenge that cynical maxim. But sooner or later one hopes the penny will drop…

Written By JWA on May 21st, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

Its the distribution, stupid.

Social mobility is irrelevant. You won’t break the pattern of social reproduction when places to ‘move’ to are in short supply.

It is subject to Co-evolutionary phenomena, such as the Red Queen Effect

Written By garamsci on May 21st, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

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