Eton: locking in privilege—locking the Tories out of the opportunity debate. Photo: Shutterstock
I never had a major life mission to become an MP. The Game of Thrones politicos, who seemed to be the face of student politics at university, only put me off further. I was drawn in later, when I came to appreciate a very different sort of politics—focused not on politicking for its own sake but achieving change that actually helps people on the ground.
Sadly, our parliament seems destined to stay stuck in Brexit limbo, where the posturing and game-playing eclipses practical achievements, just as it has been for the past three years. It is no surprise—Brexit is the biggest political, economic and legal rewiring that Britain has experienced in decades. It is inevitably all-consuming.
When I joined the Conservatives many years ago, I saw it as the party of opportunity. But the last time it won a serious majority was in 1987, a staggering 32 years ago. It was then a party that recognised the value of aspiration, effort and, yes, reward. Such positive ideas brought together communities up and down the country. Yet rather than ask ourselves the tough questions on how we rediscover that success, the party now just seems to enjoy division and negative politics.
The challenge for today’s Conservative Party is to convince Britain that it understands how hard it is to climb the ladder when you start at the very bottom. It is not going to be taken seriously as a force to spread opportunity when two leaders in the last three have been to a single ultra-privileged private school, Eton, and so many other cabinet ministers are from similar backgrounds.
More broadly, the British party system is no longer up to the job. The three main parties have been around for over 100 years and it feels like they are past their sell-by date, hollowed out from within; fewer citizens these days are moved by loyalty to them. The issues Britain faces—whether on Brexit, climate change, social care or my own passion, social mobility—need long-term approaches. Our ossified political structures seem unable to deliver. These big issues cut across party lines, and so party politics inhibits solutions to the thorny problems we all care about.
So if our parties are no longer fit for purpose and if parliament has no bandwidth beyond Brexit, then how do we overcome this to still improve society? The answer necessarily has to be from outside the political system.
My politics are very different from the late Tony Benn, but as I step down from the Commons myself I know exactly what he meant when he said he was leaving the House in order to “spend more time in politics.” I never thought that parliament had a monopoly on making positive change; for me, becoming an MP was only ever one way to make a difference, and not about the privilege of sitting on the green benches for the sake of it. I’m leaving Game of Thrones to help build a coalition outside parliament, unhindered by dysfunctional party politics.
Since I launched the cross-party Social Mobility Pledge campaign, I have been focusing of equality of opportunity. This is one area where our country really needs a new approach. Growing up in Rotherham, I know what lack of opportunity looks like and experienced it first-hand. The toughest year of my childhood was the year my dad lost his job in the steel industry. He was to be unemployed for a year. A massively talented man, he found few openings on his doorstep. His lucky break never came.
For millions it’s still the same today. How can Britain succeed when we squander talent on an industrial scale? Our campaign asks companies to commit to working with schools on careers and mentoring, providing structured work experience and apprenticeships, and making sure their recruitment practices are fair so they can offer chances to young people which they may not otherwise enjoy. Hundreds of businesses employing three million people, together with universities with a total of one million students, are acting together to extend opportunity.
We don’t need to wait for a minister in Whitehall to make change happen. As a former secretary of state for education I know the positive impact that government can have, but I also saw its limitations. If parliament could have passed a law to create equality of opportunity, we’d have done it years ago. It isn’t that easy. The other half of the equation is galvanising action with the grassroots.
That is all the more important when parliament is going to take years before it gets back around even to discussing the issues people are most concerned about. In the meantime, it’s got to be DIY change—people doing it for themselves, unhindered by party rosettes.
Parliament will, eventually, have to catch up. Politics must be reformed, and so it will be—one day. But I, for one, am not going to wait around for that. I am walking away from the Palace of Westminster. Parliament is in no condition to overhaul Britain for now—but that will not stop us. Join me.
Justine Greening is the former education secretary and MP for Putney from 2005-19. She lost the Conservative whip in September