The political economy of competitiveness and social mobility

Abstract

Social mobility has become a mainstream political and media issue in recent years in the United Kingdom. This article suggests that part of the reason for this is that it can serve as a mechanism to discuss policy concerns that appear to be about social justice without questioning important aspects of neo-liberal political economy. The article charts the policy rhetoric on social mobility under both New Labour and the current Coalition Government. It is argued first that under New Labour the apparent commitment to social mobility was in fact subsumed beneath the pursuit of neo-liberal competitiveness, albeit imperfectly realised in policy. Second, the article suggests that under the Coalition Government the commitment to raising levels of social mobility has been retained and the recently published Strategy for Social Mobility promises that social mobility is what the Coalition means when it argues that the austerity programme is balanced with ‘fairness’. Third, however, the Strategy makes clear that the Coalition define social mobility in narrower terms than the previous government. It is argued here that in narrowing the definition the connection with the idea of competitiveness, while still clearly desirable for the Coalition, is weakened. Fourth, a brief analysis of the Coalition's main policy announcements provides little evidence to suggest that even the narrow definition set out in the Strategy is being seriously pursued. Fifth, the international comparative evidence suggests that any strategy aimed at genuinely raising the level of social mobility would need to give much more serious consideration to narrowing levels of inequality. Finally, it is concluded that when considered in the light of the arguments above, the Strategy for Social Mobility – and therefore ‘Fairness’ itself – is merely a discursive legitimation of the wider political economy programme of austerity.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The majority of work on social mobility is within two distinct methodological traditions: an economic tradition utilising income group analysis and a sociological tradition utilising class-based models of social stratification. For a discussion of these, see Nunn et al (2007).

  2. 2.

    Indeed Boas and Gans-Morse (2009) comment that the term ‘can mean virtually anything as long as it refers to normatively negative phenomena associated with free markets’ (p. 152), and ‘neoliberalism has become a conceptual trash heap capable of accommodating multiple distasteful phenomena without much argument as to whether one or the other component really belongs’ (p. 156).

  3. 3.

    Indeed, the Coalition document was entitled ‘Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility’, where the latter referred to fiscal responsibility and discipline and the former to policies designed to row back on Anti-terrorism legislation, ID Cards and ‘big government’ more generally.

  4. 4.

    Particularly ‘balanced growth’ referring to spatial and sectoral balance – see below for a discussion.

  5. 5.

    For example, White British and Black Caribbean boys in receipt of Free School Meals in terms of their General Certificate of Secondary Education performance relative to Chinese children also in receipt of free school meals (FSM); White Teenagers in terms of their participation in Higher Education; ethnic minority graduates in terms of their recruitment to large organisations; women generally in the labour market in comparison to their educational attainment; Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in terms of their employment; and disabled people in relation to their employment and wages.

  6. 6.

    Indeed, as most University admissions tutors will testify, as A-Level qualifications have inflated over time, so the conditions for access to University in the first place have increasingly also depended on these dynamics.

  7. 7.

    This is not quite the same as the class hierarchy. There are two traditions in research on social mobility – a Sociological tradition based on Weberian notions of class and expressed largely through the allocation of class status to occupations, and an economic tradition that considers mobility within the income distribution (for a discussion, see Nunn et al (2007).

  8. 8.

    A-level grades of AAB and above.

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Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to the anonymous referees whose comments helped to greatly improve this article.

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Nunn, A. The political economy of competitiveness and social mobility. Br Polit 7, 86–110 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1057/bp.2011.33

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Keywords

  • social mobility
  • inter-generational mobility
  • inter-generational justice
  • social justice
  • competitiveness