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
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 family hosts examples of lives affected by the quirks of education (Christ’s Hospital scholarship then Oxford in his case, poor schooling for close relatives).Yet even he struggles to define a distinctly Conservative approach to the problem. So the mantra is simply, “It’s the schools, innit?”
Obviously more good schools do matter. But that does not remove the access dilemma, since some schools will always be better than others. That’s why the idea of pupil premium, giving more money to schools in poor areas, is a good one. But how big should it be? Too small and it will be ineffectual. Too large and Cameron will be accused of a “war on the middle class.” The group most likely to feel aggrieved are the lower-to-mid-middle classes, who will neither benefit from measures aimed at the poorest, nor have the resources of the upper middle class.
A lottery for places in the best schools to inhibit selection by house price is more equitable. But Cameron doesn’t like the sound of that either. Instead his government would close bad schools, facilitate new ones and take it from there. But even Gove now sounds cautious about how long will be needed to show real results—and all that in the midst of the spending squeeze.
The next problem, and the part senior Conservatives do not wish to dwell on: how far should universities be made responsible for ensuring, to adapt Thomas Jefferson, that a few more geniuses are “raked from the rubble”? Labour used tuition fee rises to pressure universities into helping those from less privileged homes. Tories are more likely to cry “leave the universities alone.” So what is the Cameronian instinct on giving treasured places to state school kids with lower grades than a private competitor? “Not my problem,” is one response: universities should not be accountable for how they run admissions. Alas that sits awkwardly with a view of social mobility as a “social responsibility,” as the socially responsible Cameron once put it.
I wonder if those around him share this view. George Osborne is privately more dubious about how much a party of the right should claim to determine such major trends beyond a decent education system and curing welfare dependency. Gove is focused on the minutiae of schools reform. David Willetts isn’t rocking the boat on universities, though if he stays in his brief he will oversee big rises in fees, raising questions about how to help poorer applicants. Oh, and the eternal renegade David Davis insists grammar schools would do the trick—and most of his party agrees with him.
Today’s Conservatives have got to grips with their reputation for not caring about the poor, with a serious body of policy work to show for it. Social mobility is another progressive crusade they want to make their own, with some justification. But when it comes to working out how to pursue it in any detail, don’t be surprised it they’re strangely busy doing something else.