Social “mobility” is not social justice

By Adam Peggs

Last week Labour announced that it would effectively abandon pursuing social mobility as a major goal of public policy. In harder policy terms, the party would seek to replace the current Social Mobility Commission with a ‘Social Justice Commission’. Alongside this, Labour are proposing to introduce a dedicated Social Justice Minister at the Treasury who would work across departments to address unequal outcomes.

The overbearing focus on social mobility as a measure of fairness has been with us for some time during a period in which inequality and exploitation have mostly been sidelined. Instead we’ve seen decades of policy which has placed more emphasis on trying to help what Angela Rayner has described as a ‘lucky few’ while inequality is left ‘entrenched’. The focus on social mobility as the key indicator of fairness in society has tended to reinforce and uphold existing social inequalities, whilst downplaying the horrendous social effects of the UK’s widespread levels of inequality.

Narratives around social mobility effectively rest on the assumption of countless others being left behind while a few rise out of poverty, leaving ‘millions on the scrapheap’. Policies to promote social mobility have in many cases, if not most, led to greater injustices. Grammar schools, long advocated in areas of the right (not least by our most recent Prime Minister), have been sold as tickets to upward mobility for working class kids. Yet selective education appears to have had the opposite effect on social mobility, and has led to areas being ‘substantially and significantly more unequal’. The same has been true of the centre-right’s interest in stringent ‘streaming’ in schools which has repeatedly been found to have led to greater inequality.

In 2003, Stuart Hall, in a piece for the Guardian, wrote that New Labour had ‘picked up where Thatcherism left off’ and ‘adapted to neo-liberal terrain’. There are flaws in Hall’s wider assessment of Thatcherism that are not worth going into here but the image of neoliberalism as terrain is instructive. Neoliberal realism may well have led to a tendency to define social mobility as synonymous with fairness. Successive governments acceptance that economies simply are financialised and deeply unequal have helped to leave social mobility as the only available marker of progress and fairness. In this kind of society, promoting social mobility became the last logical way to try and make society fairer.

It is worth highlighting that even when focussing on social mobility alone, governments have repeatedly and profoundly failed. We live in a country with unusually low levels of social mobility and little sign of progress on that front, one where social mobility has gone backwards since the introduction of Thatcherism.

Fixing this should make the economy a little bit fairer, but would still leave many pauperised and disenfranchised. In a society with ‘perfect’ social mobility a great many would still live in poverty, while more would still live in financial insecurity – that is no vision of a just society.

The focus on social mobility in political discourse has too often served to obscure or divert attention from Britain’s grotesque inequalities, from widespread poverty and rates of exploitation. It is unlikely that this is an accident. Much social mobility discourse highlights the hardships of poverty and exploitation yet proposes nothing to fight these injustices.