There was no pleasure to be taken in watching Nick Clegg flounder his way through yesterday failing to convince anyone that the government was serious about improving social mobility. I suspect he once believed in it, but like other LibDem ministers who used to have something serious to say on the subject – Sarah Teather, Andrew Stunnell and Steve Webb to name but three – he has sold his principles at the knock-down price of a Ministerial car and an AV referendum.
The social mobility strategy should face prosecution under the Trades Description Act. As a strategy it brings together existing policies on education, welfare, employment, housing and the rest into a patchwork quilt – but there is no stitching to make it a coherent whole.
Nothing will be done about growing inequality, and the relationship between inequality, social mobility and good social outcomes is simply not explored. Nothing will be done about inheritance and nothing will be done about people being able to buy privilege, so the rich private school elite will maintain its grip. Nothing will be done to reverse the cuts to the services that give poorer people some hope, like Sure Start and the Education Maintenance Allowance. And for Clegg to focus on changes to internships shows how threadbare this strategy is.
The document points out that housing makes up 42% of household wealth but there is no analysis of the role that housing might play in promoting greater social mobility and equality of opportunity. The same old Duncan-Smith-isms are trotted out: social housing somehow causes deprivation, there is a culture of dependency, people aspire to be home owners, and all the rest. The only thing I can see that might make any difference to social mobility is the (already announced) set of proposals to improve the geographic mobility of social tenants, but even that is outweighed by the failure to address supply.
Living in a decent warm affordable and secure home with enough space provides the platform on which all other opportunities are built. Health inequalities and educational inequalities are closely linked to housing opportunities. Children will find it hard to achieve if they have faced homelessness or overcrowding or living in cold damp conditions. Many of the government’s housing policies will make it harder for children and young people to succeed. For example, housing benefit will cover less and less of the rent, increasing real poverty and the risk of homelessness for many. Fewer tenants will have long term security in their home, the place where they build their lives.
The final proof, if any more was needed, that this is not a serious strategy, was provided by Clegg himself in an article in yesterday’s Telegraph. Writing jointly with Iain Duncan Smith, they say that the strategy is aimed at squeezed middle-class parents who are “working hard to make the best life possible for their children”. They go on: “Most of them are not poor, and certainly don’t want to rely on welfare payments. But nor are they rich enough to insulate their children against life’s misfortunes.”
Mr Clegg should note that there is more than a slight difference between insulating the middle classes and promoting social mobility.