Expert comment: The next Prime Minister must take action on social mobility

Patrick Mulrenan, course leader for Community Development and Leadership BSc, calls on the new PM to take real action on social mobility.

Date: 17 July 2019

You won’t make much money betting on Boris Johnson succeeding Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party: the current odds offered by bookies is 1/14 (almost 90 per cent). But you may want to take a flutter on what he says as he stands on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street on his first day as Prime Minister. Will he commit fully to leaving the EU on the 31st October 2019? Will he announce an election?

My own bet is that he will do what almost all Prime Ministers do when they come to power- make a stirring commitment to social mobility:

‘We must do something about the inner cities. I don’t want there to be forgotten people any more. This means fighting against the burning injustice that if you are born poor, you will die on average nine years younger than the others. It means giving everyone in this country a chance, so no matter where you are from, you have the opportunity to make the most of your life’

It’s hard to disagree with the sentiments above. In fact, this is one sentence from each of the speeches made by Margaret Thatcher (1987), Tony Blair (1997), David Cameron (2015) and Theresa May (2015) as they first entered office. 

Boris Johnson’s most notable contribution to the debate on mobility was in 2013, when he noted that ‘it is surely relevant to the conversation that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85 while two per cent have an IQ above 130’. He followed this up with a controversial metaphor suggesting that ‘the harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top’

On the face of it, this seems a bit unpromising. The fact is that social mobility in the UK is stagnating. Better off people are 80 per cent more likely to make it into professional jobs than those from a working class background, and living standards have been declining for those who are disadvantaged or young. But perhaps the lesson we need to draw is that we should judge politicians on what they do to promote social mobility, not what they say. 

So here’s three modest proposals to promote social mobility. By the time children reach 5 years old, an opportunity gap has opened up between those from a poor background and a rich one. The Government should restore investment in Childrens’ Centres, which have such a positive impact on the health and well-being of children and families. And at the other end of the spectrum, provide a student premium for disadvantaged college and university students. And finally please stop the obsession with access to Oxford and Cambridge. Both leadership contestants attended Oxford, but the real engines of mobility are universities like London Metropolitan University.