On Wednesday I spoke at the launch of a report produced by the TUC called Dismantling the Barriers to Social Mobility. I was pleased to be asked both in my role as a Vice Chair of the APPG on Social
Mobility but also because it was an opportunity to give a Liberal Democrat perspective on a panel that was otherwise dominated by current and former Labour politicians including Alan Milburn as social mobility “tzar”.
The key argument of the TUC report was that a high level of income inequality is a barrier to social mobility. In principle I agree with this conclusion. But I pointed out that that I am concerned with income inequality independently of its relationship to social mobility. I believe that the gap between the rich and the poor – including the ratios between the highest and lowest paid employee in any organisation – matters. It matters in relation to good social cohesion and a sense of social justice and fairness. It also matters and to a sense of wellbeing in the workplace, something I am currently involved in as Vice Chair of the APPG on Wellbeing who are currently conducting an Inquiry in this area.
One almost universally acknowledged contributor to growing inequality is the rising cost of living in the face of stagnating wages. This means ordinary people have to do more with less in order to provide basic necessities for themselves and their children. It was in response to this problem that I agreed last year to chair a Lib Dem working group on a Balanced Working Life. The goal of this group was to see how public policy can help people on low and middle incomes juggle looking after their family with paid work.
We concluded that three things would particularly help ordinary people maintain a balanced working life: 1) requiring more employers to pay not just a minimum wage but a living wage, and eliminating zero-hours contracts, 2) providing high-quality, affordable childcare for those that need it, and 3) ensure that our public services, such as transport, are working for the whole labour force, including those who work nights and weekends. We need these reforms and others in order to help more people, especially women, stay in work, earn more, and pay less for the necessities of family life such as energy bills. All of this will start to reduce income inequality.
In my view reducing the gap between the rich and poor would help improve relative social mobility, i.e. it would reduce the extent to which one’s chance of succeeding in life is dependent upon his or her parents’ income and background. However, I believe reducing inequality is a necessary, but not sufficient step towards improving social mobility. As long as big social and geographic disparities persist within our education system, your chances in life will depend unfairly on your parents’ income and background. So if we are serious about a more socially mobile society, then we need to focus on education.
Past efforts to close the attainment gap in our schools have focused almost solely on indicators such as test results. In my opinion, this approach fails to see the forest for the trees. Academic achievement is certainly very important, but it is also important to acknowledge that well-off children in the country are given many more chances to benefit from extracurricular activities and out-of-classroom experiences. As the APPG on Social Mobility concludes in our recent Character and Resilience Manifesto, these experiences teach important life skills such as empathy, self confidence, determination to see a task through, dealing with adversity, relationship-building and emotional maturity, skills that are necessary both for academic success and gaining a foothold in the labour market.
If we can coordinate these economic, labour market and educational forms, I believe we have a real chance to build a more equitable, more mobile society. But we need to keep in mind political realities. There is neither the money nor the political will to build a Nordic-style economy in a nation as large as the UK. So we will need to figure out what can work here and now. I believe that if we start with education, and add policies to help working families, then we can make a start towards a fairer society.