It was a commonly held view in the 1950s that - as a result of an expansion in jobs in health and education at the end of the Second World War- Britain had become a middle class, indeed a classless, society. Britain, it was argued, had become a more open, socially mobile society where individuals could better themselves on the basis of merit and ability. This theory, however, masked continued levels of poverty and deprivation and failed to challenge the fundamental structural inequalities in society. In fact it served as an ideological justification for those inequalities.
This same myth of mobility and meritocracy is played out again in a government commissioned report published last month, “Unleashing Potential: The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions”. Chaired by arch-Blairite Alan Milburn, the panel’s report highlights the continuing gender, race and particularly class inequalities in the UK today.
Life chances in terms of health, income and education are all linked to social class background. For example, young people living in the most advantaged areas of the UK are up to six times more likely to enter higher education than those living in the least advantaged 20%. Britain is currently one of the least socially mobile countries in Europe.
How does the report respond to this reality? The message is, essentially, that we accept the existing system as it is and try to better ourselves in a society where: “the State …empowers citizens to realise their own aspirations to progress.” This rhetoric couldn’t contrast more starkly with a country still in the grip of a global economic crisis, where unemployment is likely to reach three million by the end of the year and where home repossessions are at a record high. In light of this, the report’s suggestion that: “…encouraging more home or employee share ownership has an important role to play in tacking inequality and speeding up mobility” flies in the face of economic reality.
Undeterred by the current crisis (“we look beyond the confines of the current economic recession”) Milburn tells us that by 2020 there will be an expansion in ‘professional’ jobs. However, the label means very little: the jobs on offer may be ‘middle class’ to Milburn but they will be overwhelmingly low paid jobs in health care and in the service sectors.
Another change envisaged by this report is an ‘opening up’ of the top privileged positions which should then become more accessible to children from poorer backgrounds. Currently 75% of judges and 45% of senior civil servants were privately educated, compared to 7% of the general population. The report’s response is simply to welcome the “commitment” of the professions to become more socially inclusive.
Far more emphasis is put on the hard work and determination of individuals to move up the social ladder. The government proposes to help with a range of schemes: for example, a “Yes You Can!” campaign with role models to inspire children to achieve, mentoring schemes in schools involving young professionals and - more worryingly - the use of armed services cadet forces, invited into state schools for team building exercises and to open the armed forces at professional level.
Far from equalising opportunities with these types of schemes, the neo-liberal policies of this government have continued to reinforce the inequalities that working people face. The government may encourage universities to widen participation and take more students from poorer backgrounds, but recent newspaper reports suggest that up to 130,000 young people will be turned away from universities this summer because of lack of places - so much for trying to better yourself! This, of course, is against the background of the abolition of grants, rising fees and the marketisation of higher education.
The language of individualism and empowerment underpins this report, as it underpins the ideology of neo-liberal capitalism - everyone can better themselves with hard work and determination. This stress on the individual turns attention away from the structural inequalities built into capitalist society.
We continue to be a deeply unequal society. In 2001, the richest 1% of the population owned nearly a quarter of the wealth in the UK. Yet, ruling class power and privilege is safe - if this report is anything to go by.
The dilemma for New Labourites like Milburn is that although they are aware of the inequalities in society, they have a stake in the existing system. This means that capitalism is safe with them, that policies of continuing cuts in welfare provision and privatisation will hit the poor the hardest and do nothing to seriously challenge the root of the problem.
There is nothing for working people in “Unleashing Potential”, with its individualistic entreaties to people to try harder, be more confident, more aspirational. But what workers do have is the power collectively to make changes, to occupy to save jobs, to fight to save services. It is solidarity between workers, not individual competition, that will unleash our potential and create a better world.
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