When Michael Young coined the word ‘meritocracy’ in 1958, it was to describe a dystopian society stratified, not by class, but by intelligence tests and academic attainment. It was written as satire and meant as a warning. It was a dig at the contemporary education system, which separated the elite from the masses by means of an examination at 11, and the application of fashionable IQ tests.
Towards the end of his long and extraordinary life he expressed great disquiet when the word he invented changed to mean something entirely benign, indeed desirable. ‘Meritocracy’, in the mouths of today’s politicians, means the same as social mobility, where people with talent and ambition can fulfil their potential.
Young, who I had the honour to know and work with, was an egalitarian. He wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto, and invented the Open University, Consumers’ Association and many other institutions. He would have looked at today’s absence of social mobility with horror, and wondered what had happened to the dreams of the post-war generation, and the aspirations of the 1960s generation, for a classless society.
Because of this, I suspect he would have forgiven James Bloodworth’s appropriation of the term ‘meritocracy’ for the title of his new polemic. Bloodworth serves up a timely reminder that, for all the social advances of the 20th century, and all the technological advances of the 21st, Britain remains as class-bound and divided as ever.
Our unequal society rings out in both minor and major keys. It is not just about accent, dress, eating habits, or taste in popular culture which marks one Briton from another, as sharply as in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. It is also overall life chances: the chance to go to university, own property, travel abroad regularly, enjoy a rich cultural life, have a rewarding career, and to pass all of these assets and opportunities on. Even life itself is rationed out, based on class. In the poorest neighbourhoods of Tower Hamlets the average male life expectancy is five years shorter than in wealthier parts of London.
Bloodworth points out that our education system, especially the universities, professions such as law or medicine, and institutions such as the BBC, are still the preserve of the upper middle classes.
Despite Labour’s efforts to tackle poverty and inequality, the grip of the upper middle class on these bastions of power, prestige and privilege remains as tight as ever. He makes the important point that a progressive politics which focuses exclusively on gender, sexuality and race, but fails to address inequalities of income and social class, is doomed to fail.
He also argues that only a more equal society can be a society with better opportunities and outcomes for all. As Labour begins the long march back to electability, efforts such as Bloodworth’s add an important intellectual contribution. But, while the argument is well made, this is no manifesto. The hard part – how to achieve a more equal society with practical policies – remains a conversation we still need to have.
Rushanara Ali is member of parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow
The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working Class Kids Still Get Working Class Jobs
BiteBack Publishing | 144pp | £10
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