Why failing to tackle UK’s social mobility woes could be political suicide for major parties

Mainstream political parties will be punished by voters if they fail to improve falling levels of social mobility, a new book from a Yorkshire policy expert argues. Chris Burn reports.

Social divides are growing ever starker in the UK, warns author Duncan Exley. Pic: PA
Social divides are growing ever starker in the UK, warns author Duncan Exley. Pic: PA

Duncan Exley has dedicated three years of his life to writing a deeply-personal book about social mobility but its release today could hardly be more timely.

After Anthony Wallersteiner, head of the £12,000-a-term Stowe school in Buckinghamshire, caused consternation at the weekend for likening criticism of private schools to anti-semitic abuse and claiming “social engineering” was unfairly allowing too many state school pupils into Oxbridge, a very different perspective was provided through a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies yesterday which warned widening inequalities in pay, health and opportunities in the UK are undermining trust in democracy and even contributing to “deaths of despair” from addiction and suicide.

The topic’s political importance was recognised by Theresa May when she became Prime Minister in July 2016 with a promise to tackle the “burning injustices” holding back poorer people. But the lack of progress on the issue was starkly highlighted in December 2017 when all four members of the board of the government’s Social Mobility Commission stood down in protest at the failure to take meaningful action.

Theresa May arrived in Downing Street in 2016 promising to tackle social mobility problems but there has been limited success to date. Picture: PA

It is in this context that Exley is publishing The End of Aspiration? Social mobility and our children’s fading prospects which combines academic research findings with the personal stories of those who managed to beat the odds of their backgrounds and rise up the social scale, including reflections on his own journey as the son of a pit electrician in the West Yorkshire mining town of South Elmsall to becoming director of The Equality Trust charity.

Personal journey

The 46-year-old, who now lives in London, says it was his personal experiences working for the charity that inspired him to write the book.

“You spent a lot of time talking about opportunity and social mobility. One of the things that really made me think I want to do this was conversations with people in think-tanks, politics and journalism. It wasn’t reflecting my experience of life,” he says.

Duncan Exley is a former director of The Equality Trust

“Ladders are designed by people who have never had to climb one. I felt like people from quite privileged backgrounds and especially people from a London-centric background had this idea about what social mobility was and what people were trying to do that seemed to under-appreciate how hard it is.”

His decision to leave The Equality Trust and write the book was also motivated by the experience of losing his father, a keen walker who had intended to spend his retirement walking in the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales but fell seriously ill shortly after leaving work and “struggled to walk to the end of the street”.

Exley says it made him think he had to make a start on the book rather than waiting for the perfect time.

The book’s structure examines the barriers underprivileged people face from birth through education and into the world of work, while interweaving the stories of people who defied the expectations of their backgrounds to assess what lessons can be drawn from their experiences. It gives examples of barriers to opportunity that are not considered by those in power who come from privileged backgrounds but can be fatal to the chances of those trying to build a better life – such as inadequate university maintenance loans for living costs which result in those people not being financially supported by parents piling up debts or taking multiple jobs rather than focusing on their studies and participating in extra-curricular activities.

Politicians share their stories

Those who Exley interviewed include Government Minister Jackie Doyle-Price, the daughter of a builder who grew up on a Sheffield council estate before efforts by the council in the 1980s to prevent her family buying their own home was instrumental in her joining the Conservative Party she now represents as an MP. Other politicians interviewed include Labour MP and former barrister David Lammy, whose mother juggled multiple jobs to support her children, and ex-Education Secretary Justine Greening, the daughter of a Rotherham steelworker.

He also spoke to, amongst others, billionaire businessman Mark Dixon, the son of an Essex motor engineer, as well as surgeon Rozina Ali, whose British-Pakistani parents were a factory worker and a housewife.

Exley says a common theme among many of his interviewees was the role chance encounters had played in their lives, with several talking about knowing a ‘posh friend’ in their younger days who, often accidentally, assisted their aspirations.

“‘Posh friends’ do a lot of different things,” he explains. “Firstly, they show certain careers even exist. The reason I finally knew it was possibly to get paid to work in the voluntary sector was in my 20s, I met someone in a pub in Hebden Bridge who was the Yorkshire and Humber co-ordinator for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and explained that was his job.

“Another part of it is being a role model, but not necessarily a good one. If you know someone who is a barrister but know them well enough to think ‘they are not as clever as all that’, it makes you think if he is doing something like that, I could too.”

But Exley says increased social segregation in schools, communities and workplaces is making it more difficult for such encounters to occur.

“Part of the problem is we are becoming more segregated as a society and people are spending time in their working lives and neighbourhoods and extra-curricular activities with people from a similar background, so those opportunities are diminishing.”

Importance of secure home

Another key finding from his interviews was that those who had gone on to climb the social scale “had a lot of stability” in their childhoods – coming from families which either owned a home or had a secure council tenancy. He notes that greater proportions of people renting privately has removed this security for many families and made it more difficult for children to reach their potential.

This is already having an impact at the ballot box. Research by the British Election Study on the 2017 General Election showed the increase in the Labour vote which denied the Conservatives a majority was largely attributable to people who rent rather than own their home.

Exley pinpoints three areas of commonly-held and intertwined aspirations – ‘a job I love’, a secure home and the ability and resources to start a family – as ambitions which are harder to achieve than they were in previous generations.

“There is a massive political opportunity for people to acknowledge this and take on these things. People have these aspirations and they are slipping away rather than getting closer. We are now, as a nation, more likely to experience downward social mobility — to have a job further down the occupation hierarchy than our parents had at the same age — than we are to ‘go up in the world’.”

Political imperative

Exley’s book puts forward several policy suggestions which he believes could improve matters – from strengthening rental rights to reforming UK working hours in a way that boosts productivity while allowing families to spend more time together. He admits that it will not be easy, but says the growing nature of the problem affecting a wider and wider strata of the populations means there is greater political pressure to find solutions.

“It is a big job and the Government is taken up with Brexit. But whereas in the past it was very much the idea that a lack of social mobility was to do with a lack of opportunity for poor kids, we are now seeing the issue is affecting people in the broad middle of the spectrum. So when the ‘average person’ sees their own kids and grandkids are now more likely to get a worse job and worse housing, the political imperative to act is greater.

“If something isn’t done about it, then the electorate is going to start looking for alternatives. There is already a turn-away from mainstream politics that will continue if they don’t come up with something that says we will help you with your aspirations to a decent job like you parents a had, a home to call your own and we will pull out the stops to make sure that happens. If they don’t do that, they are clearly going to lose the public.”

Challenge of ‘climbing the ladder’

The book also touches on the emotional cost to people who climb the social ladder, with some facing perceptions they have somehow betrayed their backgrounds and many feeling like they don’t quite fit in, either in their new surroundings or back home. One interviewee describes how she tries to ‘spot people like me’ among the other parents at her child’s school but has been unable to.

But the book is also clear about people’s pride in their roots and how social mobility should be about the chance to pursue opportunities not normally offered to someone from their background rather than a desire to leave one social class and join another.

“My partner comes from a similar background to me and throughout the book, people have a tendency to have partners who come from a similar background, it is about people who understand you,” Exley adds.

He says he had an instant connection with many of his interviewees, including Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price, who grew up just a few miles down the road from him in Sheffield.

“As I was sat with her in her office in Parliament, she sounded like the people I had grown up around, I felt we understood each other,” he says.

“When I started researching this book, I thought by the time I get to the end of this, I might never want to hear about this subject again. But it has been the opposite. I’m more enthused about it than I ever have been. I want to continue looking at the same sort of stuff - the question of how do you create more opportunities and how do you make sure people who have come from the average background are able to take advantage of them?”

Brexit highlighted national divisions

The importance of having people from a variety of backgrounds in positions of power is highlighted by the shocked reaction of the Establishment to the Brexit vote, says Exley.

His book recounts the story of how he was met with ‘surprised disdain’ by the head of a think-tank when he asked in late 2015 how a forthcoming project would potentially be affected by a Brexit vote and he was told it was not going to happen.

Exley says in some ways, the perception was understandable – on the night before the referendum vote, he cycled through London and saw 40 Remain posters on his 30-minute journey but not a single Leave one. “Across wide swathes of London, Leave voters were nowhere to be seen,” he says in the book.

The End of Aspiration? Social mobility and our children’s fading prospects is out now, published by Policy Press.