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The success paradoxWhy we need a holistic theory of social mobility$

Graeme Atherton

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781447316336

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447316336.001.0001

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Unpicking the political consensus on social mobility

Unpicking the political consensus on social mobility

(p.53) Three Unpicking the political consensus on social mobility
The success paradox

Graeme Atherton

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter considers the extent to which there is agreement or not between political parties in the UK where social mobility is concerned. It looks at how social mobility increased in political prominence under the Labour administration of the 2000s, and how this increase continued under the Conservative: Liberal Democrat administration of the 2010s. The approach of each party is then examined in detail to illustrate that while there is a common core to how each party understands social mobility (and some common myths promulgated across the parties) there are also clear differences in philosophy originating in the differences between the parties. The chapter ends by arguing that there is some optimism regarding the possibilities of changing how social mobility is understood. The optimism can be found in the spaces that exist both within, between and around parties to shape different ideas around social mobility.

Keywords:   Conservative Labour, Liberal Democrats


Sociologists have been keen to portray a cross-party political consensus on social mobility (Goldthorpe 2012, Payne 2012) – the idea that it has stalled at best, or is going backwards at worst, appears to be shared by all the major political parties in Britain. However, politicians always arrive at their interpretation of an issue from the context of their own party and its ideology. Bracketing together different politicians’ views hampers an understanding of how and why social mobility has become such a high-profile issue. Crucially, it also masks the possible trajectories that social mobility could take into the future.

This chapter shows that while all the main political parties in the UK subscribe to some ‘truths’ on social mobility, they arrive at these by different routes, which then gives hope that they could leave in different directions too.

Social mobility and New Labour

The origins of the present concern about social mobility can be found in the 1990s and Labour’s desire to find a way to articulate the party’s core concern around inequality and poverty in a way that seemed to resonate with late 20th-century Britain. Labour had to find a way back to government as it was staring at what some thought was perennial opposition.

Where its views on inequality and poverty were concerned, this process began with the Commission on Social Justice report produced for the Labour Party in 1994 when in opposition (Commission on Social Justice 1994). It continued through the 1990s with the two dominant figures in Labour politics in the UK of that and the following decade, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, seeing social exclusion as a way of redefining what was once poverty and equality of opportunity (Levitas 1998). They were both keen to place education at the centre of how social exclusion would be addressed and equality of opportunity (p.54) increased. Blair gave a famous speech in 2001, proclaiming that: ‘If we are given a second term to serve this country, our mission will be the renewal of our public services. There is nothing more important to making Britain a fairer and stronger country. Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education’ (Blair 2001).

Brown was also not slow to emphasise the role of education. Throughout the 2000s, he argued that education was the driver of not just equality of opportunity, but also of economic growth (Johnson and Floud 2014).

In taking this road, Labour was not in the business of questioning broader structural inequalities (McKibbin 2007). They saw that the way to retain power was to work within the framework set by globalised capitalism. In this context, it is not surprising that they were less likely to entertain any notions of downward mobility or to look at how more fundamental, deep-rooted issues may need to be tackled (Goldthorpe 2013).

Social mobility itself, though, did not rise in prominence until the early 2000s. The Labour government’s Performance Innovation Unit produced an overview of social mobility that was a much more even-handed treatment of the issue than what became the rhetoric of the 2000s (Aldrich 2001; see also Goldthorpe 2012).

In Goldthorpe’s eyes, things began to go wrong when the work of Blanden and colleagues emerged. By presenting a problem that was at the core of what Labour’s values should be about, and giving the Conservatives at the time a much-needed stick to beat the government with, it is clear to see how Blanden et al’s work could have such an impact. As a problem that germinated over time, it was also one that each party could accuse the other of not dealing with, with first Labour and then the Conservatives being able to take advantage of this opportunity. It also resonated well for Labour with the rhetoric of modernisation that they continually pushed in the early to mid-2000s. It could be argued that this was a positive message: the aim was to increase social mobility as opposed to reducing social exclusion. It is noticeable how in two of Tony Blair’s most high-profile contributions to the debate in the early 2000s, he associates social mobility with a vision of a better society. In 2004, for example, he states that he wanted to create an: ‘an opportunity society [where] the aim was to put middle class aspirations in the hands of working class families and their children to open up opportunity to the many and not the few’ (quoted in Wintour 2004).

The early 2000s also saw the start of the diffusion of the social mobility goal across government. As Nunn et al argue in their 2007 (p.55) review of social mobility for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), increasing upward social mobility was a goal that could be used to justify work across different departments including that of the Department for Education in upskilling the population; the Treasury and its work on addressing low pay; the Sure Start initiative, also originating in the Treasury; area-based regeneration work via the DWP itself; and the Cabinet Office, with its focus on social exclusion (Nunn et al 2007). It became a very effective ‘meta-narrative’, which could weave together what the government was doing to create a more ‘dynamic’ society.

Further evidence of the shift in language on the Left towards social mobility, and the emergence of social mobility as meta-narrative, was seen in 2005 when the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) produced Maintaining the Momentum (Reed et al 2005). This reinforced the fact that responsibility for the issue was dispersed across different government departments.

The IPPR report was preceded by the government’s White Paper on higher education, The Future of Higher Education (DfES 2003). It framed the government’s commitment to increasing participation in higher education (HE) by those from lower socioeconomic groups in terms of social mobility. While this was an issue that cut across departments, it was skewed towards those dealing with education. This interplay of government policies framed around social mobility in the policy community seeking to use the language of social mobility continued throughout the 2000s.

It was not until the mid-2000s, however, and the election of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party, that the political Right entered the social mobility fray. In an article for The Guardian newspaper in 2006, Cameron stated that ‘we will carry the banner of sensible, centre-right reform into territory which Labour should never have conceded: social mobility and the role of schools in enabling every child to reach their potential’ (Cameron 2006).

The Conservatives have readily bought into the idea that social mobility has slowed down. The Education Secretary in the early 2010s, Michael Gove, referred to this frequently to support his own personal beliefs on education (which had a significant impact on government policy) (Paton 2012). But it was the Liberal Democrats, as the junior member of the coalition government that ruled Britain in the early 2010s, which took ownership of social mobility, building on Labour’s work. Their former leader, Nick Clegg, described it as ‘the long term social policy goal of the government’ (Clegg 2010).

(p.56) The White Paper Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers (Cabinet Office 2011) was very much the Liberal Democrats’ contribution to the coalition’s work. It is surprising that they were able to do this given that the focus on social mobility only increased in the final years of the Labour government up to 2010 (HM Government 2011). When Gordon Brown became leader of the Labour Party in 2008, it became clear that he was a strong supporter of the social mobility idea. In an interview with the Telegraph in 2008, Brown stated that:

My whole argument is that Britain is ready for a new wave of social mobility – upward mobility – people being able to do better than their parents, the next generation doing better than the last, because there are more opportunities in this new world economy. We’ve got to help people climb the ladder of success, we’ve got to give them the opportunity to make their aspirations and dreams come true

(quoted in Hennessy 2008)

Brown was not just using social mobility for sloganeering effect; it sat at the centre of his view of the world. Education was the driver of a nation’s future prosperity. It would unlock people’s ability to take advantage of an increasing number of knowledge-intensive jobs. In 2009, Brown’s government commissioned the then ex-Labour Minister, Alan Milburn, to conduct a review entitled Fair access to the professions (Cabinet Office 2009). This contained 88 different recommendations, which extended far beyond its initial remit, including the abolition of the whole Connexions service (the national service introduced in England in 2001 to support young people in progressing to adulthood). Its effect and the subsequent follow-up reports from Alan Milburn was both to cement his place as the leading political authority on social mobility and to locate progression to elite occupations via more selective universities as the primary definition of social mobility.

Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission

After the 2010 general election, Alan Milburn took on the role of head of the quasi-autonomous Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. Its main role is to produce an annual report to Parliament highlighting the government’s progress, or lack of it, against the targets in its 2011 social mobility strategy. Milburn saw the role of the Commission as what he described as a ‘bully pulpit’, from where it could advocate for social mobility (Grice 2013). The focus of the (p.57) Commission is certainly wider than just access to the professions. As its major remit was to monitor government policy, it retained the lifecourse approach to social mobility, first developed in the early 2000s via the IPPR, and embedded in the Opening Doors strategy (Cabinet Office 2011).

The Commission evolved from the earlier Milburn reports in how it defined social mobility, to incorporate the problems of the low paid as well access to elite universities and professional occupations. In its first annual report in 2013, the Commission made a number of wide-ranging policy recommendations, including reallocating resources from the old to the young; eliminating youth unemployment; and improving childcare (Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013a). These recommendations serve as the start of an approach to social mobility that is broader and could develop over time into something more coherent.

But exploring the nature of social mobility is less a priority for the Commission. What constitutes social mobility is both explicit, in that its role is to report on what government does, therefore they de facto accept the UK government’s intergenerational definition, and also to a degree implicit, interpreted through the policy recommendations above. Any broader debate on what is meant by social mobility, or its relationship to broader political and economic issues, has thus far been avoided. Neither has some of the potential internal contradictions in bringing together child poverty and social mobility been confronted. In addition, the relative priority or importance of the two issues needs to be breached. The reduction of child poverty and upward economic social mobility are not the same thing. Nor is it clear why child poverty, as opposed to poverty per se, is the priority and how this relates to social mobility – other than to lock the Commission’s work into a primarily intragenerational framework.

The Commission has so far steered clear in its policy recommendations from any consideration of the kind of labour market challenges described in the following chapter. By doing this, though, it leaves its work far too open to the criticisms of the sociologists, who argue that expansion in higher earning/higher socioeconomic positions is axiomatic to the kind of social mobility that the Commission advocates, but who are sceptical about whether this is a realistic expectation.

Social mobility, politics and the 2010s

The political ‘consensus’ on social mobility of the 2010s has evolved since the early 2000s. What began as an attempt to position Labour’s (p.58) core concerns in the context of global economic changes became a way of the Liberal Democrats expressing their commitment to fairness and social justice, and a means of the Conservatives assuaging their guilt regarding the composition of elite professions. Labour is less active now in defining this discourse. The leader of the Labour Party from 2010 to 2015, Ed Miliband, flirted in the early 2010s with the idea of a British promise – a British equivalent of the American dream. In a 2011 speech he stated that:

‘We have always assumed that our kids, the next generation, would do better than us. Not just the well off, the vast majority can expect that their kids will do better than them. It is a promise that each generation will pass to the next: a life of greater opportunity, prosperity and wellbeing. In many ways that is the promise of Britain. We may not have given it a name in the way that Americans talk about the “American Dream”, but it is there nevertheless.

(Labour Party 2011)

This idea has yet to be pursued with any real vigour. Unlike his predecessors, in particular Tony Blair, Miliband has shown less appetite so far for building the kind of ‘big picture’ narrative about the future that has within it an idea of success and what it means. Nor, as will be explored later in Chapter Nine, have the Left-leaning political think tanks shown much appetite to develop the idea of social mobility.

It is telling that an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility was set up in 2011 chaired by a backbench Conservative MP. Such groups serve to raise the profile of an issue and to help shape the discourse on it. The APPG has produced a series of reports on social mobility and has had an important part to play in keeping the issue on the political agenda. Its perspective has thus far followed the social mobility orthodoxy in emphasising the importance of progression to elite occupations and the critical role of education in social mobility. As will be seen in Chapter Four, though, it has also added its own twist to these themes.

The APPG’s 2012 seven key truths about social mobility lays out the group’s core position, however:

  • The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between ages 0 and 3, primarily in the home.

  • You can also break the cycle through education …

  • (p.59) … the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching.

  • But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings.

  • University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key.

  • But later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support.

  • Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain. (APPG 2012: 10)

While these key truths only echo much of what has been heard before, the APPG is also making its own distinctive contribution to the political discourse on social mobility. It has produced further reports focusing on the role of character and resilience in promoting educational attainment and trying to identify what makes social mobility more likely in one area than another (APPG 2013, Paterson et al 2014).

These truths broadly echo, however, the priorities identified in the 2011 HM Government White Paper Opening Doors (referred to earlier). These are shown in Figure 3.1. This illustrates that while politicians may wish to interpret social mobility differently, and in politically partisan ways, many of the concerns regarding how to affect it – and indeed, what it is – remain within a set of given parameters. This also shows quite clearly how social mobility has come to embrace a broad set of policies and departments with the lifecycle approach. In this sense, then, it has evolved since the 2000s as a policy area.

In contrast to the 2000s, social mobility is not an issue that the Prime Minister of the Conservative-led coalition from 2010 to 2015 invested great store in (Helliker 2010). David Cameron was conscious of his own background, coming from a wealthy family and having attended Eton and Oxford. He was careful of doing anything that drew undue attention to this background, as it is something that has repeatedly been used as a weapon against him by the media and political rivals. He has been drawn into the social mobility debate, rather than entering into it willingly, like both his predecessors. In late 2013, for example, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major publicly criticised the lack of diversity in positions of power (Wintour 2013a). Cameron duly expressed his concern about the fact that his own Cabinet contained a relatively high number of those from public schools. He also took a very wide view of what social mobility meant and how to increase the upward part of it. As alluded to earlier, he argued that the government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, which gives preferential financial support for (p.60)

Unpicking the political consensus on social mobility

Figure 3.1: Social mobility across the lifecycle

Source: HM Government (2011: 9)

first-time house buyers, was ‘about social mobility’ (The Independent 2013). It was about helping Britons to ‘move on and up in life’.

In associating home ownership with social mobility, Cameron has broadened how it could be defined. This may have been done inadvertently. It was certainly the product of political opportunism as much as any philosophical reasoning, but it is an interesting observation as it supports the view that social mobility may be an issue that goes beyond who is (and who is not) a member of the Cabinet. As with the idea of the ‘British promise’, which was not developed by Labour, it illustrates that politicians are able to connect social mobility with wider issues in British society in a way that academics have been less inclined to do.

(p.61) Other senior Conservative figures have been more willing to speak about social mobility, though. In early 2014, Michael Gove, the former Minister for Education, described the dominance of Eton in public life as ‘ridiculous’ (Cohen and Bloom 2014). However, exactly what difference a more diverse Cabinet would make was never explored. There has been no more staunch an advocate of the Conservative’s policies than Gove, who has no regrets about what the government has done since 2010 (DfE 2014).

If Gove didn’t want to see policy changed, what difference could a more diverse Cabinet make, other than to make the Conservatives electorally appealing to a broader constituency? The principle of more diversity in public office does seem consensual, but the lack of any developed thinking regarding what difference this diversity would make in practical terms is also consensual. (This issue of the rationale for elite diversity is tackled in more detail in Chapter Eight.) This episode shows that while politicians might be willing to link social mobility with a broader set of societal challenges when it suits them, they are also happy to support the orthodox view when that fits their priorities better.

Miliband and Cameron’s contribution to social mobility, though, pale in comparison to those of the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (Skelton 2013). He made social mobility a personal vocation and his office repeatedly attempted to keep the coalition government focused on this agenda (Clegg 2013). A considerable part of Clegg’s desire to be associated with the social mobility agenda may stem from it presenting a safe way of differentiating his party from the Conservatives in the ruling coalition government. The Liberal Democrats’ decision to form a government with the Conservatives was not welcomed by many of its supporters, who saw themselves as closer to the political Left than the Right. To try and bolster its appeal to these disgruntled supporters it then tried to act as the ‘conscience of the coalition’, defending the interests of those from lower socioeconomic groups. And taking the lead as the champion of social mobility became one aspect of this strategy, giving the Liberal Democrat take on social mobility a particular character.

The focus was less on positioning social mobility as part of a broader vision of society and the economy (as did Labour in the 2000s). There was also far less of the anxiety surrounding membership of elites (although Clegg’s personal background has been raised in the media several times), as this is far less of an issue for the Liberal Democrats. Neither was social mobility seen as part of a drive to reduce inequality. Somewhat controversially, Clegg argued in 2012 that inequality and (p.62) social mobility were not linked (an example of politicians falling foul not just of sociologists but also economists) (Ramesh 2012).

Rather, it appears that social mobility took on a particularly personal association for Nick Clegg. As he stated in his speech to the Liberal Democrats annual conference in 2013:

‘And now, as a father with three children at school, I have come to understand even more clearly than before that if we want to live in a society where everyone has a fair chance to live the life they want – and to bounce back from misfortune too – then education is the key. The gifts we give our children – self-confidence, an enthusiasm to learn, an ability to empathise with others, a joy in forging new friendships – these are instilled at an extraordinarily young age. That’s why I made social mobility the social policy objective of this Government – and I will want it to be the same for any Government I’m in.’

(Clegg 2013)

For Clegg, social mobility became a motif of a policy. It represented something he stood for as a politician, conceived in a distinctive way: not part of a commitment to historic Labour goals of greater equality, but emblematic of a commitment to fairness and opportunity that the Conservatives could never possess.


At the broad level of problem and definition, there has been a consensus on social mobility between political parties in the UK from the early 2000s to the mid 2010s, but there are also evident differences.

Each party has its own distinctive position on social mobility, a product of its history (both recent and more distant), the personal views of its senior politicians and how each party wishes to position itself at any particular point in time. This scenario of difference within consensus provides grounds for both pessimism and optimism. Pessimism comes from the extent to which a particular understanding of what social mobility is and how to fix it has become embedded in a political discourse that is, in reality, focused on securing a fairly narrow political centre ground (at least this is what a party does if it wants to be successful – witness what happened to the Labour Party in 2015 when it was perceived as straying from this centre ground). The more attention is placed on social mobility from within this narrow frame, the more this definition is reinforced. Optimism can be found in the (p.63) spaces that exist within, between and around parties to shape different ideas around social mobility.

As we enter a new 5 year parliament, it is likely that these spaces will change again. The Conservative government has renewed its rhetorical commitment to social mobility. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about it in his first speech to the Conservative Party conference of the new parliament (Kirkup 2015) and a new prime ministerial target for access to higher education for those from disadvantaged background has been created (HEFCE 2015). It is still not clear though yet what a distinctive Conservative position on social mobility will look like. Labour has the most left leaning leader for over 30 years and he has used his power to position advocates for his policies in powerful positions in the party. Given his commitment to a new politics this may mean that Labour will develop a more robust approach to this issue up to 2020. Whether this extends to questioning the nature of the concept and confronting some of the issues outlined in this book remains to be seen.

The most important thing that this chapter has shown is that this is not a static discourse. It is constituted of different actors, making distinct forms of contribution, causing subtle changes over time in how social mobility is interpreted. How it will evolve in the next five or ten years is still contested ground. This dynamism illustrates that, in theory at least, potential opportunities for shifting the discourse exist, if the right arguments can be developed and the right strategies adopted. (p.64)