Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Lack of merit

Labour’s addiction to meritocracy is alienating its traditional working-class supporters

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The Labour party regards its commitment to meritocracy not merely as a central element in its vision, but a key factor in securing electoral support. The more that I think about this, though, the less I believe it to be true.

To start with, there are many traditional Labour voters who are simply not drawn to the vision. In my work as a sociologist I come into contact often with people who are resentful of the way in which the modern party does not seem to value the contribution to society of ordinary folk. The education rhetoric comes over to them as expressing inequality of esteem. Similarly, many others do not like the way that the social mobility which meritocracy entails breaks up their local communities, and scatters their families. For all these sceptics, what is actually important in life is not individual success so much as socially responsible participation in mutually supportive effort. That is what the Labour party seemed to them to stand for in the past. And if it is no longer the case then the party has been taken away from them and sooner or later will need to be replaced.

More damningly, even, there also seem to be doubts among those Labour supporters who do believe in social mobility over whether the strategy being followed by the party actually works. As the latest British Social Attitudes report confirms, rates of mobility are currently declining, and class lines are hardening. I suspect that at least part of the problem here lies in the use of state power to intervene in the educational process, to assist sectors of the population who are deemed to need support. Such overt sponsorship may both reduce the sense of achievement and legitimacy of beneficiaries themselves, while seriously undermining the motivation of those who do not receive it. For by trying to encourage some, you are bound to discourage others. In my own research I have come across plenty of evidence of this – particularly among white working-class children in situations where immigrant children are being given extra help by teachers. The message to these white children – as now acknowledged, in the Ajegbo report – is that their own rights are less important. No wonder that many of them feel excluded, and do so badly.

In many countries, such state support for particular groups is regarded as incompatible with true meritocracy. But curiously the Labour party seems to ignore the distinction, and even to regard such promotion as part of its meritocratic strategy. This probably does not merely aggravate social divisions but also create serious obstacles to social mobility among large sections of the working class.

If the party really wants to develop a genuinely open society, in which social mobility is both widespread and popular, then there are two essential things that need to be done. First, the moral unity of society needs to be reclaimed, and fraternity restored, by making sure that ordinary work is valued in a decent wage. Differentials must be reduced. This is fundamental. It is also something a government has direct influence over, and which would have been a priority in the party until a couple of decades ago.

Second, the desire to stage-manage social mobility from the centre must be curbed. The role of the state should just be to enable social mobility, by providing accessible (and lifelong) educational facilities for people, when they want them; not to impose it by interfering to set endless targets for schools and other bodies, and singling out certain groups for special help. Even imposing standard school attendance is arguably a mistake, and fails to produce social justice. Why keep reluctant and obstructive adolescents at school until 16 just to give them a ‘fair chance’. It would be far better to allow them to leave years earlier, if they have achieved reasonable literacy and numeracy. Those eager to leave would then have a real incentive to apply themselves. And this would reveal, and stimulate, far more ‘hidden talent’ than does the present custodial regime.

Social mobility achieved under these conditions would be socially integrative, and consistent with fraternity, rather than a source of polarisation and conflict.

The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy, edited by Geoff Dench, is published by Blackwell. For more details, and further information about the book’s launch on Monday 29 January, click here.

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Geoff Dench

is a senior research fellow at the Young Foundation

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