Cameron’s Conservatives want to be seen as the party of social mobility. But do they have the stomach to do anything about it?by Anne McElvoy / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
I was interviewing Michael Gove recently when he delivered one of those deft lines that make him a one-man quote machine. His party, he said, needed to show that it had something better to offer “Billy Elliott” Britain than Labour did. Hark at the latest salvo in the social mobility battle, as the government runs out of time to close the opportunity gap.
“We are the party of social class mobility” said David Cameron in 2006. David Willetts recently endorsed a report by New Labour’s own Billy Elliott, Alan Milburn, on removing barriers to professional advancement for those from poorer backgrounds. And Tory chairman Eric Pickles says mobility can “strengthen society and get rid of dependency.” So in theory, the opportunity ladder stretches upwards under a Conservative government. What is not so obvious is whether it is a serious quest, or just more seductive mood music repositioning the party in the centre ground. For who doesn’t want to be a social mobiliser these days?
Some academic apostates argue that Britain is more mobile than the crude figures suggest, but the consensus is that privilege is now more entrenched—not only across the 12 Labour years, but for a good two decades at a (small c) conservative estimate.
But what to do? Compassionate conservatives want the party to have an interest in the poor, while others like Pickles think mobility can save welfare bills. Of course these are related areas: but most of us think there is more to broadening opportunity than just getting the workless a job, or saving on social security.
I confess to having a bee in my bonnet on this issue—so much so that I suggested to some leading Tories about a year ago that they should launch a commission on the subject, to find ideas beyond the existing hunches and policy initiatives. The responses were fascinating, the outcome (so far) negligible.
Cameron’s chief strategist Steve Hilton is the figure most comfortable in this territory. His own fami…