The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working Class Kids Still Get Working Class Jobs

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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Comments: 3...

  1. On June 16, 2016 at 3:40 pm Glen Barnham responded with... #

    Excellent piece and in my 55th year as a LP member I really wonder if the powers that be really have a clue about this or the wider issues or even begin to understand where to start.Great thinkers of the Labour Movement where are you? Who is banging the drum?

  2. On June 16, 2016 at 4:50 pm Norfolk29 responded with... #

    I went to a Polytechnic in 1961 to study for a degree in economics. There were about 30 of us, of whom a mere two were female. All of us were working class or lower middle class and many were there because they could get a grant to pay the bills. One of my fellow students had to wait six years before he got a grant to allow him to study. I got £256 for my first year and £306 for my second and third year. The idea of student loans was not even thought of. Many of my fellow students served in bars, washed cars and did Saturday jobs to pay the bills. Most of us passed our exams and moved into the professional classes. The important thing in 1964 and for the decades after was that having a degree guaranteed you an interview and then it was up to you. Move forward thirty years and the number of graduates that spent years unemployed and then took jobs that they could have got without going to university. This was not the worst of it. The recession in the 1990’s caused a lot of redundancy in senior posts in London and those people then took posts at a lower level, disposing a lot of people who were fully qualified to do the jobs occupied by those senior people. I was at the end of my career at that time and was amazed at the short-sightedness of appointment boards who must have known that these people would be gone when the recession ended. In many cases long before they had achieved anything.

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