Promoting both economic and social mobility together is what Labour is for
I want you to imagine that Ed Miliband and Alan Milburn get together and ‘father’ a policy programme. Stop screaming – I think I am onto something. What we need from a new Labour leader is a commitment to both the economic mobility championed by our former leader and the social mobility championed by the former health secretary. A fusion of these two things will make a reality of that bit of our party card which says we will ‘create for each of us the means to realise our true potential’.
This is partly covered by the shorthand term ‘aspiration’. There is a consensus that there was not enough of it shown in our 2015 policy programme even if John Prescott suggests that no one really understands what it means. What it means, John, is that where you start should not determine where you end up. It means the son of a railwayman who fails his 11 plus has the rungs of a ladder to enable him to get an education courtesy of the trade union movement at Ruskin College and the contacts and opportunities to rise to become deputy prime minister. Liz Kendall calls it ‘giving everyone an equal chance to succeed’ and Labour should ensure that those ‘rungs’ are there for everyone.
One of Kendall’s strongest moments in the campaign so far was in her first interview when she challenged Andrew Neil. ‘Why will you always do well?’ she asked – and got an answer! It is because of a good education, a good job, skills, knowledge and contacts, choices and chances. Instead of explaining and bemoaning why a poor background prevents someone getting on – and even criticising those who have – we need to act to change those odds for everyone.
We have got some experience in government of doing this. Our education policy was relentlessly focused from 1997 on raising the standards of literacy and numeracy for primary pupils to ensure that they could access the opportunities of secondary school. I am proud that we saw the biggest improvements in the most challenged schools, because we must never accept lower standards for those who need high standards the most.
Even at that time of relative ‘plenty’ in public spending, we introduced tuition fees. Our argument was that proper funding for teaching in universities which we maintained, unlike the Tory-led coalition, should not come at the expense of early years. We also argued that the real determinant of whether a young person even applied to university was whether they got the chance of taking and succeeding in the right A levels.
That is why Kendall is right to say that with limited resources the priority must be to give all children the first rung on the ladder to educational achievement. That means renewed Sure Start, but it also means personalised programmes for those at risk of falling behind. It means ensuring that all children get what I pushed and paid to ensure mine got: gifted and talented programmes; music and sport; ‘soft skills’ gained from being able to meet a wide range of inspiring people. Remember, the founding idea of the academy programme was to enlist not just the money of sponsors, but also their social capital and influence for the sake of some of our most challenged schools. This is far more important than obsessing about school structures and we should be thinking about how to reinvigorate this idea.
But a focus on social mobility alone will not be enough to ensure everyone is able to reach their full potential. There was an interesting addition to the Neil answer when Kendall said, ‘and you’ve been able to put some money aside’. People become trapped and limited by economic circumstances as well as social ones. Low income and the related inability to build up assets restricts people’s life chances too. In his self-deprecating and perceptive speech to parliament from the backbenches recently, Miliband was right to argue that inequality harms economic growth and social mobility. For too many the way our economy works feels like running up the down escalator. And he was right, as our leader, to argue that economic inequality cannot just be put right through redistribution. While this might promote some equality of outcomes, it does not radically redistribute opportunity within society, which should surely be our aim.
It may not have been the snappiest label, but the principle of predistribution was exactly right. A welfare system which keeps people in touch with work; affordable homes to rent or buy; jobs which pay fairly and the skills to get them are key elements of economic mobility. But in addition we need to worry about asset inequality too. Neil is protected by the savings he has built up. My sons will be able to do postgraduate courses because I will fund them – a much bigger hurdle than tuition fees for first degrees. Without assets, your choices are closed down and your life can be totally thrown off course by illness or unemployment. That is why we were right to introduce the child trust fund and the Savings Gateway while in government. Support from government to enable people to build up savings is liberating. The fact that the Tories scrapped both tells us how shallow their view of aspiration and security is.
A future Labour leader must focus on the fundamental issues which will really liberate people to reach their full potential. This is right for individuals, but it is also the only way to give people hope and power in a rapidly changing modern global economy. Society will be unstable while some feel that they have no stake or future. We cannot compete internationally without ensuring the fullest possible contribution from all to improve our national productivity. Promoting economic and social mobility empowers individuals and builds a stable and prosperous country. The first job of the new leader should be to sit Miliband and Milburn down. Together they can address Britain’s biggest problems and Labour’s biggest passion.
Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary and a contributing editor to Progress
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