Class warriors, by David Walker

25 Sep 08
David Cameron has made an audacious raid on New Labour territory by calling for greater social mobility. Ahead of next week's Conservative Party conference, David Walker examines the modern politics of class.

26 September 2008

David Cameron has made an audacious raid on New Labour territory by calling for greater social mobility. Ahead of next week's Conservative Party conference, David Walker examines the modern politics of class.

Danny La Rue would be awestruck. This summer, the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron (Eton and Oxford) and assisted by George Osborne (St Paul's and Oxford), pulled off an extraordinary feat of political cross-dressing.

'Broken Britain,' they cried, although to former members of the Bullingdon Club the country looks pretty sound. Despite their leaders' effortless demonstration of how power and privilege are transmitted down through the generations, the Conservatives were still able to grab fairness, disadvantage, social mobility and the educational under-attainment of poorer children and run off with them into the headlines. More coverage can be expected at next week's party conference in Birmingham.

Cameron aspires to be the Margaret Thatcher of social policy – 'to be as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer' was how he put it last month. It's an audacious claim since that dreaded phrase 'redistribution of income and wealth' never passes his nor his colleagues' lips.

On the spending side, shadow chancellor Osborne has now started saying cuts are coming. The Tories would stick with Labour's expenditure plans only till the financial year 2010/11, which is the due date of the next general election. After that, all bets are off.

Meanwhile, since the election of London's Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson (Eton and Oxford), and the Crewe & Nantwich by-election debacle, Labour has not been able to call a toff a toff. Today, the erstwhile party of the working class finds itself unable to mention 'class'. Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, reportedly excised the C word from her speech on equality to the Trades Union Congress in early September.

The Tories, however, can and do mention class – witness recent speeches by education shadow Michael Gove on schools and inequality, and employment shadow Chris Grayling on poverty. That Gove (Robert Gordon's College and Oxford) and Grayling (Royal Grammar, High Wycombe and Cambridge) do not qualify as toffs exemplifies the depth of the Tory attack.

On Johnson's return from the Olympics in Beijing, he capitalised on the fact that most UK competitors went to private schools and their alumni had won 45% of all UK medals in the past three games – but added that the Tories would seek to change those ratios in future.

This return to talk of class in politics is astonishing. Mrs Thatcher considered the very word to denote a Marxist plot. Her successor, John Major, identified with classlessness. Tony Blair, slaying Labour demons, declared the class war over.

Viewed through one end of the sociological telescope, that looks right. Ours is a two-thirds affluent society and for about 70% of the population, the chances of moving up stand fair comparison with other advanced countries – contributing to an overall likelihood of moving up of about one in three.

But add in the other third – those living in social housing, under-achieving at school or doing the menial jobs – and you have to conclude that 'family background largely determines life prospects,' says Lee Elliot Major, director of research for the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for educational opportunities for students from poorer backgrounds. 'In England, a child's test score is more strongly predicted by their parents' educational achievements than in any other country for which data are available.'

The Cameronites have turned that dire social prognosis into political opportunity for the Right. A decade ago, Thatcherite economist Lord Peter Bauer wrote a pamphlet denouncing the British obsession with class, saying: 'It needed the reforms of Mrs Thatcher's governments to reopen the road of opportunity.' Now here are Cameron and Osborne, proclaiming that social mobility is flatlining (and neither pretending it happened only on Blair's watch). While they have committed themselves to no targets or numbers, the implication is that Cameron's premiership would improve the rate at which poor children get on. He as good as said: 'Mrs Thatcher fixed the economy in the 1980s (albeit at a social cost); I will fix society.'

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was encouraged to publish an analysis arguing that social background strongly determines life chances, and he set up a think-tank with 'social justice' in its title. In interviews, both Cameron and Osborne have made a virtue of their privileged backgrounds by saying the affluence and wealth of opportunities they enjoyed fuelled their desire to see others move up the ranks.

In July, Grayling announced a plan to smash the 'glass walls' that keep children from disadvantaged backgrounds in poverty, saying the social divide was wider today than it has been since Victorian times. Labour's reply was that the Tories aren't being specific – what do they mean to do about class sizes, teacher numbers, benefit levels and so on? Andrew Lansley, the shadow health spokesman, wants food companies to help cut childhood obesity levels but says nothing about the regulation necessary if they don't. There are yawning gaps in the policy prospectus: on social housing, on skills training. Even in its dilapidated state, Labour has scored points over the Tories' refusal to sign up to its commitments on abolishing child poverty.

Osborne has started tightening the financial screws on what shadow ministers can offer. Promises on early years' help are being whittled down; a recent suggestion is for child benefit to be rolled up in anticipation and paid out in a lump sum during the first three years of a child's life. What price the heroic changes to England's schools implied in Gove's plans when spending has to be saved (and taxes cut)?

When Cameron says 'let's make sure we maximise social mobility for all children', is this just mood music? Rhetorically, the Tories are endorsing social change in a progressive direction and appearing to promise the policies to make that happen. A few years ago, Greg Clark MP, close in with David Cameron, had brazenly adopted a metaphor of the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, saying society was like a caravan winding across the desert, but the sheikhs at the front were accelerating away. Clark overthrew years of Tory prevarication by accepting that poverty was inherently a relative concept, and could be measured only in relation to incomes and earnings at large.

Now the Tories have openly used the language of inequality. 'You promised to reverse underachievement,' Gove taunted the government in a pamphlet called A failed generation. 'But inequality hasn't just been maintained under Labour, it has increased.' Half of secondary schools in deprived areas in England did not reach the benchmark of a third of students getting five good GCSEs. Half of children who qualified for free school meals (because they come from poor homes) got no GCSE higher than a D in 2006/07.

Academics rounded on Gove, saying he had minimised the evidence of school improvement under Labour – GCSE entries and results do not support the contention of 'a decade of persistent failure', said Ruth Lupton of the London Institute of Education. But she admitted that the gap between the educational attainment of children from poor homes and the rest has been widening. The fact that the gap shows in data going back to the 1970s made Gove's snapshot 'a cheap shot' – but it also demonstrates the intractability of disadvantage and its persistence through time.

Social mobility is contested, however. Behind the idea and its calibration lies a huge literature, which often contradicts public sentiment and politicians' beliefs. Recent studies have compared the fate of a sample of children born in 1970 (now in their late 30s) with results from a large study of the 1958 cohort, who are 50 this year. (A study of children born at the millennium is under way and the government announced this summer that it is spending £28.5m on new studies.)

Until recently, the accepted finding was that the expansion of the service and public sectors from the 1960s opened doors to children from lower-class homes but some time in the 1980s, mobility rates started to fall. Jo Blanden of the University of Surrey sums up: 'The economic status of the 1970 cohort is much more strongly connected to parental economic status than the 1958 cohort.'

For education policy-makers, this was accompanied by the dismaying suggestion that much of the spending on secondary schools and the expansion of universities has benefited the children of better-off parents, especially girls. 'This unequal increase in educational attainment is one factor that has acted to reinforce more strongly the link between earnings and income of children and their parents,' Blanden says.

But some academics are worried about basing conclusions on particular years. They insist that the true measure of mobility is the chances of children ending up in a different social class from their parents – and that means noting the fate of the offspring of Sir Peter Osborne and the Hon Felicity Loxton-Peacock as well. Young George was never likely to do anything but succeed.

John Goldthorpe of Nuffield College Oxford, the foremost British analyst of mobility, disputes that the rate of upwards mobility has recently fallen. 'In political circles, and in turn in the media, it seems widely believed that in recent decades intergenerational social mobility in Britain has declined – even in fact “ground to a halt”,' he says. 'If mobility is understood in terms of movement between different class positions then our results reveal that this prevailing view is simply mistaken. Mobility rates – indicating the proportion of individuals found in different class positions to those of their families of origin – have remained remarkably stable since the 1970s.'

This leads him to conclude that social mobility – defined as the relative chances of moving up or down – has not changed much even since the 1940s, despite all the education reforms of the post-war era.

'It's difficult to see why any of the reforms presently being implemented, or envisaged, should be more effective. In present-day political discourse, one may observe a fairly general tendency for the obvious importance of education as a channel of mobility to be regarded as evidence of education as a cause of mobility – which is a very different matter,' he says.

The more reflective Tories underline the long-term nature of their commitment to increase social mobility. Shadow secretary for universities and skills David Willetts got into hot water last year when he moved the Tory official line away from supporting grammar schools because they benefited so few children from poor backgrounds. Despite 73% of the party faithful saying they wanted selective secondary education to expand, Cameron backed a policy commitment that, like Labour, would leave existing grammars in place but not add to their number.

Willetts, a former special adviser to Thatcher, emphasises the durability of social problems. He recently argued that policy had to focus on helping the young children of poor families but had to avoid 'early years determinism' – that is, making everything depend on policies for the under-fives. Second chances had to be offered to teenagers in secondary schools.

But the Tories' official plans for schools still look remarkably like Labour's: more academies in poor areas and more parental choice, which experts say could mean more segregation between better-off and poor pupils. Gove's plan implies a big expansion of school places and an even tighter focus on spending on deprived areas, which could be politically risky.

Grayling announced proposals on work placements and urban division, plus an 'intensive programme of early intervention in primary schools to identify and help children who start to fall behind early in their schooling' – but this will rely on the voluntary sector. Might Labour start picking holes in the Tories' expansive plans for change and their determination to withdraw direct government intervention, in favour of voluntary effort and persuading private firms to help out?

Maybe the Tories' new interest in class and social mobility is a ploy. Goldthorpe points out the 'political attractiveness, in the context of prevailing “median voter” electoral strategies, of highlighting the goals of greater mobility and equality of opportunity – which, like motherhood and apple pie, it is hard to be against'. If you are serious, he argues, you need to focus on inequality, which means the distribution of income. Front-bench intellectuals, such as Willetts, accept the logic but, so far, he and his colleagues have not been heard making speeches on changing the tax system in the direction of 'progressivity'.

Perhaps they are banking on the public's confusion about class. The polls say people hate talk of toffs yet Stephen Pollard, the pro-Tory columnist who collaborated with education minister Lord Adonis on a book highly critical of class exclusion in education, says that four-fifths of people think there is still a 'class struggle'. People might respond to talk of social mobility while appreciating the Cameronites' bland acceptance of their own social origins.

Yet class could still be risky ground for the Tory high command. Under Blair, Labour pledged that spending on schools and teachers would mitigate the power of social class and home background in determining opportunity. Here come the Tories with the same message, only stronger. At the very least, this puts education policy at the forefront if Cameron wins the election. And though Gove protests that it is 'moral' leadership in schools and parental choice that are his preferred mechanisms, he can't avoid giving hostages to fortune on schools spending.

But what if – as the research affirms time and again – no matter how good the schools and teachers are, they cannot countermand background and class? 'There is little reason to suppose that over the last quarter-century academic ability became of any greater importance relative to class background in determining the probability of students continuing to A-level,' Goldthorpe reports. By taking on class, the Tories are contending against modern Britain's most intractable social fact, which weighs as heavily in the twenty-first century as it did in the last one.

David Walker is co-author with Polly Toynbee of Unjust Rewards, Granta, 2008


Did you enjoy this article?