Tag Archives: social-mobility

The Clegg era starts here

Notwithstanding my gripe on Thursday, Nick Clegg has had a very good week. He started by putting the finishing touches to his front bench, made a series of appointments regarding reforming party structures (about which I must get around to blogging about it detail at some point), made a well-judged debut at PMQs and has now made a major speech on public services reform.

This is the speech I didn’t get during the leadership election but nonetheless voted for, so I’m delighted my gamble seems to have paid off. Linda Jack’s point that he spelled out his approach in an SMF seminar in December misses the point: he spent the election campaign downplaying all this stuff when so many of us were urging him to be bold. Making a token speech to the SMF, towards the end of the campaign and with no fanfare is the oratorical equivalent of putting planning proposals, to quote Douglas Adams, “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of The Leopard‘.”

So much for the past and back to today’s speech. I’m happy with it because it moves us forward, not in some symbolic “break with the past” way that some of the headbangers in the party might like but through clear-headed liberal analysis about what is wrong with public services in the UK and how they work elsewhere. There is a clear continuity with the approach the party has always had and the direction it has been traveling in.

It is a very politically calculated speech, and I mean this in a good way. He’s correct to say that the Orange Book was correct to call for the marrying of social and economic liberalism. What no doubt would have been more boring to say was that notwithstanding the question of how you get the balance right there is virtually no-one in the party who would disagree with that sentiment (a point about which most political commentators seem unaware): he could equally have said the same about the “social liberals'” answer to the Orange Book, Reinventing the State.

Some sections in it, such as his call to scrap F and G GCSE grades, probably won’t transform society, but they represent a move away from an “everyone shall have prizes” approach to education and towards clearer delineation between pass and fail. This is symbolism, but in a meaningful way.

Possibly the most important passage of the speech can be summed up in a few lines:

I stand for these simple principles:

The state must intervene to allocate money on a fair basis.

The state must intervene to guarantee equality of access in our schools and hospitals.

And the state must oversee core standards and entitlements.

But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off in providing an array of top-class schools and hospitals.

At first it sounds very motherhood and apple pie, but in practice this is a real challenge for political parties of whatever hue to live up to. Clegg singles out Brown’s approach for failing to live up to these core principles, but the same could be said of Cameron, such as his proposal for a “Tsar of all the MRSAs.”

It will be a key test of the Lib Dems in the future to see if they can live up to these principles or are tempted to jump on this interference bandwagon. The biggest challenge is what exactly is meant by “core standards and entitlements”. You could argue that the National Curriculum does that; Labour certainly do. The National Curriculum is a “minimum standard” that has grown and grown over the past two decades, driven by political expediency. One person’s minimum standard is another person’s nanny-state interference. Literacy? Some educationalists argue you shouldn’t even start to formally teach reading until the age of seven. Sex education?

How do you stop minimum safety nets from transforming into straitjackets over time? And who sets those minimum standards: national or local government? My suspicion is that we need to better spell out what checks and balances need to be put in place for such a system to work in practice, but that is for another time.

His model for Free Schools will also need careful crafting. Over the New Year period, Clegg caused some controversy by endorsing the role faith schools have to play as “engines of integration” in The Jewish News. I commented a few months ago about the hypocrisy of Jonathan Sacks making the same point while opposing any measures which would stop faith schools from being able to choose their own pupils. If Clegg wants to ban selection completely, which also means taking on the handful of local authorities which still have grammar schools, he will have to also take on the faith lobby which he has been courting.

Orthodox Judaism isn’t the real issue here anyway. I’m sure the Vardy Foundation will have very little problem with banning selection if what they’re getting in exchange is even greater freedom to teach creationism. I’m sure the Scientologists Applied Scholastics are similarly licking their lips. And these problems are relatively simple in urban areas where there is a great enough population density to mean that parents have a wide choice of schools to choose from; in rural areas the economics works very differently.

It isn’t all one way of course; under this proposal there is nothing in principle to prevent a group of parents setting up their own school and effectively starving the local brainwashing academy of minds (so long as they can find enough support). If it is an open enough system for L. Ron Hubbard’s supporters, it is certainly an open enough system for fans of Richard Dawkins. The challenge for this proposal (which emphatically is not a fatal one) is how we combat liberalism’s greatest enemy: monopolistic power.

The health proposals are less problematic for me. The idea of allowing patients to go private after a waiting time period has expired is a sensible middle way between the Tory’s old policy of voucher system which would simply have undermined the NHS by allowing the wealthiest to take the money and run, and Labour’s target culture.

Overall then, this is an excellent start for the Clegg era. It is the most thoughtful speech given by a party leader since Ashdown departed these shores for Valinor. I think he needs to slightly change his mode of attack on Cameron, with whom he is so frequently compared. He needs to emphasise that while Cameron adopts similar rhetoric, even if he is being sincere he can never deliver while he is at the mercy of a mulish party which only allows him to lead when it feels like it.

The key fight to pick with Cameron, which to Clegg’s credit he seems to have identified as well, is over school selection. The more Clegg challenges Cameron to support a system which emphasises parental choice over school selection, the more the swivel eyed loons in the Tories will go nuts and start banging on about grammar schools. The fact that Cameron has already buckled under the pressure once suggests this will be a fun fight to watch.

The important point is, Clegg’s speech today is one that Cameron could never afford to make. That is what annoyed me so much about the “senior official’s” interview in the Guardian on Thursday. Our strength, ultimately, is our unity. The Tories’ fatal, potentially election losing flaw is their internal division. It makes no sense to talk up disunity within the party when it prevents us from exposing our opponents’.

Finally, this has been a good speech about challenging what he calls “inherited disadvantage”. That’s fine but ultimately if you want to truly tackle social mobility you need to tackle inherited advantage as well. As Clegg has set up a social mobility commission, he can’t afford to leave it too long before starting to address that.

Back to the fifties?

An article in the Guardian got me thinking: is the title “Ms” really unkown to women under 30? A straw poll of under 30 women in my office slightly reassured me as they all use the title, but then it is a very political office.

The phenomenon however is wider than just this title. Only that morning I was listening to a CWU spokesperson talking about the postal strike and repeatedly referring to “postmen and postwomen” – when did the gender neutal term “postal worker” cease being used? And over the past few years, the “chair” versus “chairman” war seems to have been decisively won by the latter (on that, I really do get tired of people making the trite argument that “I am not a piece of furniture” – you’re not a man either Ms Widdecombe, or hadn’t you noticed?).

And then there is Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I went to see this film on Wednesday and to my great unsurprise it was utter tosh. It was surprisingly old fashioned tosh though. In particular, unless I had simply not noticed in the first film, but the Sue Richards/Invisible Girl/Jessica Alba character appeared to have reverted to a 50s stereotype. The main subplot revolves around this character’s determination to make a husband out of “Mr Fantastic”, to settle down and to have kids (casting Jessica Alba as a blonde wallflower has got be the worst casting in history). Some weird alien pops up on her wedding day, threatening not only the city but the whole world, and all she cares about is that her wedding is spoilt. Over the course of the film, she “learns her lesson” and decides to let the boys have their fun after all. Throughout, she plays the doting lover/sister/friend role inspiring the menfolk to go and do great things while she merely gets killed (although she does get better). Oh, and she has an obligatory nudie scene. The only other female character has a similarly inconceivable transformation, from uptight army captain to screaming brainless girlfriend desperate to get her hands on a wedding bouquet. Most excrutiating of all, the male characters keep referring to “eggzodig daansaas” (Ioan Gruffudd fake New York pronunciation) when they mean “strippers,” but then I suppose this is a PG-13.

Okay, maybe comic book movies have never been the epitome of feminism, but this is a far cry from Michele Pfeifer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns. The point is, we seem to be drifting backwards. And maybe I’m missing something but women under a certain age don’t seem particularly concerned about this. In part, I think this is a backlash against a feminism that seemed too uncompromising and content to cast women as victims rather than encourage them to take control of their own lives. I don’t believe that is an accurate caricature, but it is certainly one which a lot of young women I’ve known over the past decade in politics have felt strongly about. Ten years ago, Natasha Walter was writing the New Feminism and the “laddette” culture was at its height. The laddettes are wearing glossier lipstick now and drinking Bacardi Breezers instead of lager, but the trend appears to have continued. The fact that we’re even having debates about abortion laws in Parliament suggests there has been a sea change. Yet in that time, we have seen more women than ever active in politics and business. So what exactly is going on?

It would be worth exchanging symbolic things like the words “chair” and “Ms” if what we get in return is true equality, but I’m not sure that is what is happening. It appears to be dividing on class lines. At a working class, uneducated level, things seem to be moving backwards and the rise of gang culture is hardly striking a blow for women’s lib. Meanwhile middle-class girls are outcompeting their male counterparts in school and going on to bigger and better things. There does seem to be a link with the decline of social mobility, but it does seem that the time is long overdue for a noughties equivalent of the Female Eunuch.

Social mobility and housing

(apologies for the lack of posts on this thus far – I’ve been remarkably busy over the past few weeks and that is set to continue. But I’ll do my best to keep this updated when I can).

From what little feedback I’ve had about this website so far, a lot of people seem to think my main hobby horse is pensions. This is probably partly because of launching this site during the same week that the government announced their new pension plans.

In fact, personally I think pensions are a bit of a red herring. For a long time people have been awake to the emerging problem of what to do about the “pensions timebomb” and I think Adair Turner got the balance about right. If there is still a problem, it lies in the fact that financial pressures will force a number of people to opt-out of their second pension.

Where do those financial pressures come from? Rising graduate debt doesn’t exactly help, but if I were to pick out what I think is Public Enemy Number One it is simple: the lack of affordable housing.

Housing is a remarkably equal opportunities social issue. Well, lack of housing doesn’t seem to be affecting those at the very top of the tree, but for everyone else it is a problem, affecting both middle and working classes alike – worse, it is forcing the middle classes to scrounge off the working classes.

In London, the average house price is now £306,664. Back when I was at school, we were taught that you could only borrow up to 3.5 of your income. Under this quaint old rule of thumb, you have to be earning £87,618 p.a. in order to get a foothold on the housing ladder.

In reality of course, people have a broader range of options. There are graduate mortgages, where a bank essentially lends you more on the basis that your future earnings are set to increase. If you are a “key worker” you can get some support from the government. A growing number of more entrepreneurial people are resorting to buy to let. In essence, if you can’t afford to live in the area where you work (common in London), buy a property somewhere else and live off the rental income. This in turn of course means that the pressures on London property prices essentially seep out across the rest of the country, exacerbating the problem.

For most people however, it means getting a top up from their parents or other relatives. That’s if they have parents/relatives who can afford it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that means that how well you are likely to be able to get on is going to be increasingly dependent on your social background.

In short, the options available to young people attempting to get some long term security are some combination of scrimp and save, pass the problem onto someone else and depend on inherited wealth. Is it no wonder that social mobility has taken a nose dive?

The papers have been rife over the last few days about a new study published by the Sutton Trust about how professional careers are now dominated by public school educated people. Lots of theories have been floating about as to why this is in an era where class is generally perceived to no longer be particularly relevant. Once again, much of this boils down to housing. As Will Hutton writes:

Another factor is that London has become more expensive and the growth in starter salaries has not kept pace. Having parents who can support you early in your career is more crucial. London house prices prop up the middle class’s closed shop as effectively as independent schools.

I don’t think you can underestimate this factor. Many professions – from law to journalism to party politics – are propped up by an internship system that relies on the fact that people are prepared to work for free in the expectation that it will get you a rung on the ladder. The think tank “sector” (such as it is) that I work in is incredibly nepotistic and extremely dependent on unpaid interns. Even for a tiny organisation like the one I work for, competition for places is considerable. We’re all too aware that getting an internship gives people a major advantage in terms of getting paid work in the sector, yet the only people who can afford to take an internship tend to have comfortably off and understanding parents. It’s a conspiracy of convenience that quietly and surely gives the comparatively wealthy a clear advantage regardless of talent.
The mass expansion of education was supposed to create a more level playing field but in fact the opposite has happened – because so many more people have degrees now, employers need other ways to differentiate potential applicants. Bizarrely, we’ve created a system whereby young people are forced to get themselves into tens of thousands of pounds of debt for a degree that is worth far less than its free equivalent 30 years ago (John Harris has some interesting related statistics here: the argument for tuition fees was always that graduates would earn, on average £400,000 more over their working life; in fact, an arts grad can expect to earn £22,000 more).

To cut a long story short, lack of housing is starting to have a severely detrimental effect on social mobility. Far from realising the Eighties dream of everyone being a homeowner, what is instead happening is that we are creating a landed middle class with almost impenetrable power over an unlanded underclass. While this is good for those families who got on the housing ladder over the past couple of decades, it’s bad news for everyone else and it’s dreadful news for the economy.

So, what’s to be done? Unfortunately, the problem is not as simple as “build more houses.” No developer wants to build affordable housing when they can make vastly more money on more expensive housing for the same cost. Speculation has a stranglehold over the property market – indeed, as a society we worship this fact. That speculation leads to over-inflated housing costs and an artificial limitation of the supply of available land. In short, developers are quite happy to sit on land and wait until the price is right. But land is not capital, which loses value over time. Indeed, sitting on land can be a very profitable business indeed.

We have to end this nonsense. The simplest mechanism I have come across for doing this is an annual tax on land values. This tax would be levied on landowners whether the land was in development or not; sitting on land would cost and thus the supply would be much larger. And because land values are entirely based on external factors such as accessibility to public services and transport links (as opposed to the capital costs of property such as bricks and mortar or double glazing), it is a virtuous tax as the money raised is created by society and not the landowner in any case. What’s more, the money raised from it could replace taxation elsewhere. The most obvious candidate is council tax, but most people agree that land value taxation could raise much more than that.

The alternative? Well, we can sit back and watch the concept of a dynamic, meritocratic society go down the toilet, or we can spend billions of pounds of taxpayers money enriching the very people who are sitting on land and causing the problem in the first place. I’m open to other ideas, but I haven’t heard anything better.