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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