The resignations of all four members of the Social Mobility Commission at the weekend have sent out a powerful message. We are, it seems, far from close to achieving a fairer Britain. Alan Milburn left his position as Chairman of the Commission on Sunday, claiming that social mobility is becoming an afterthought in Conservative policy, particularly in the wake of Brexit. In his resignation letter, Milburn wrote that the current government ‘seems unable to commit to the future of the commission as an independent body or to give due priority to the social mobility challenge facing our nation'.
The Commission was created by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2012 as a way of ensuring that progress in social mobility was not affected by short-term political demands. ‘You can’t do anything about social mobility unless you consistently apply policies over a long period of time stretching across different parliaments,’ Nick Clegg argues.
Responding to the resignations, Clegg expressed his dissatisfaction that ‘the pendulum swing of short-termism has won out again.’ Indeed, it seems that the pressure to reach a Brexit deal is undermining the need to find solutions and promote equality of opportunity.
The work undertaken by the Social Mobility Commission revealed a nation still deeply divided. Their State of the Nation report last week showed that the split between rich and poor, geographically, is more complicated than a North/South divide, and that the prospects of the young seem to depend on a ‘postcode lottery’. Among those ranked with the lowest social mobility were Chichester, West Somerset, Northumberland and Doncaster. Areas within London, and in closer proximity to London, had notably higher social mobility.
‘London and its hinterland are increasingly looking like a different country from the rest of Britain,’ Milburn said. ‘It is moving ahead, as are many of our country’s great cities. But too many rural and coastal areas and towns of Britain's old industrial heartlands are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially.’
Milburn suggested numerous policies to improve social mobility in these disadvantaged areas. He suggested that local councils should develop strategies to help disadvantaged children, that greater efforts should be made to attract teachers to poorer regions, and that there should be fairer transport funding, including transport subsidies for poor young people. However, there is little sign that these policies will be implemented soon. In fact, it was reported yesterday that in January, train fares will rise by 3.4%. This will no doubt have an adverse effect on the employment opportunities for young people in these more disadvantaged rural areas.
It is clear that the issue of social mobility will not be easily resolved, and that certainly no single policy will provide an answer. But the worst thing we could do would be to ignore the issue altogether, and so far the government’s defence of their commitment to social mobility has been unconvincing.
On ITV’s Peston, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted that the national living wage was leading to wage increases for the low paid. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Justine Greening, speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, insisted school standards were improving, and that more was being done to improve technical skills and provide mental health services for the young. Whilst these policies may help to improve the situation in UK schools, Greening’s sentiment seems incongruous with Milburn’s depiction of a government that has failed to translate rhetoric into ‘meaningful action’. Noticeably, Greening skirted around the subject of poverty in the UK.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently revealed that 700,000 more children and pensioners are living in poverty than there were five years ago. Insisting that social mobility is being tackled despite the glaring signs it is not is surely far more damaging for progress than recognising that more needs to be done.
In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May claimed she wanted to support the ‘just managing’. But Brexit appears to have derailed this aim. The next generation must be given the best possible start in life. It will demand time, effort, and also expertise in order to apply policies that can effectively minimise class divisions, and currently Brexit is draining Westminster of its best brains, stalling progress in other areas of government. There is a risk that Theresa May is dedicating so much time to Brexit that other key policy areas will continue to be neglected.