The political economy of competitiveness and social mobility


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3


  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.


  1. Atkinson, R. and Kintrea, K. (2001) Disentangling area effects: Evidence from deprived and non-deprived neighbourhoods. Urban Studies 38 (12): 2277–2298.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. BBC. (2007) Series of reports and associated documents on social mobility. The Today Programme.

  3. Blanden, J. (2004) Changes in intergenerational mobility in Britain. In: M. Corak (ed.) Generational Income Mobility in North America and Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Blanden, J. (2005) Love and Money: Intergenerational Mobility and Marital Matching on Parental Income. Research Paper, Family and Labour Studies, Statistics Canada, No. 272.

  5. Blanden, J. and Gibbon, S. (2006) The Persistence of Poverty across Generations. York: JRF.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Blanden, J., Goodman, A., Gregg, P. and Machin, S. (2002) Changes in intergenerational mobility in Britain. Centre for the Economics of Education, Discussion Paper No: (CEEDP0026).

  7. Blanden, J., Gregg, P. and Machin, S. (2005) Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America. London: Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Blanden, J., Gregg, P. and Macmillan, L. (2006) Accounting for Inter-generational Income Persistence: Non-cognitive Skills, Ability and Education. London: Center for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics.

  9. Blanden, J. and Gregg, P. et al (2007) Accounting for Inter-generational Income Persistence: Non-cognitive Skills, Ability and Education. Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labor. Discussion Paper.

  10. Blunkett, D. (ed.) (2008) The Inclusive Society? Social Mobility in the 21st Century. London: Progress.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Boas, T. and Gans-Morse, J. (2009) Neoliberalism: From new liberal philosophy to anti-liberal slogan. Studies in Comparative International Development (SCID) 44 (2): 137–161.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Boffey, D. and Helm, T. (2011) Eric pickles warns David Cameron of rise in homeless families risk. The Observer: 1.

  13. Breen, R. and Goldthorpe, J.H. (1997) Explaining educational differentials: Towards a formal rational action theory. Rationality and Society 9 (3): 275–305.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Brewer, M. (2010) Cuts to welfare spending, take 2. Slides delivered at the IFS 2010 Spending Review briefing; 21 October 2010, London, Institute for Fiscal Studies.

  15. Brewer, M., Browne, J. and Joyce, R. (2011) Child and Working-age Poverty from 2010 to 2020. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Brown, G. (2007) Speech on Education. Speech to the University of Greenwhich.

  17. Brown, G. (2008) PM Speech on Education and Social Mobility. London, No. 10 Downing Street.

  18. Browne, J. (2010) Distributional analysis of tax and benefit changes. Slides delivered at the IFS 2010 Spending Review briefing; 21 October 2010, London, Institute for Fiscal Studies.

  19. Browne, J. (2011) Distributional analysis of tax and benefit changes. Budget 2011 Analysis and Presentation Slides, London, IFS.

  20. Cabinet Office. (2008) Getting On, Getting Ahead. London: Cabinet Office.

  21. Cameron, D. (2010) Labour are now the reactionaries, we the radicals. The Guardian.

  22. Cammack, P. (2006) The Politics of Global Competitiveness. Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness, No. 1.

  23. Cammack, P. (2008) Building BRICs for Global Competitiveness: The OECD and the Emerging Market Economies. Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness, No. 1.

  24. Cammack, P. (2009) All Power to Global Capital. Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness, No. 10.

  25. Carrell, S. (2010) Liberal Democrats wouldn’t prop up ‘pointless’ Labour, party strategist says. The Guardian.

  26. Cerny, P.G. (1997) Paradoxes of the competition state: The dynamics of political globalization. Government and Opposition 32 (2): 251–274.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Clegg, N. (2010) Nick Clegg gives speech on social mobility. Press Release at, accessed 4 January 2011.

  28. Clegg, N. (2011) Social Mobility Strategy Launched. Speech at Launch of Social Mobility Strategy.

  29. Corak, M. (2006) Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Lessons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility. IZA Discussion Paper No. 1993.

  30. Craig, D. and Cotterell, G. (2007) Periodising neoliberalism. Policy & Politics 35 (3): 497–514.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. d'Addio, A. (2007) Intergenerational Transmission of Disadvantage: Mobility or Immobility across Generations? A Review of the Evidence for OECD Countries. OECD Social Employment and Migration Working Papers No. 52.

  32. DCLG. (2006) The Dynamics of Local Economies and Deprived Neighbourhoods. London: Department for Communities and Local Government.

  33. Department for Education. (2010) The Importance of Teaching – The Schools White Paper 2010. Cm 7980. Norwich: The Stationary Office.

  34. Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (2007) World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England. Norwich: TSO.

  35. Ellen, I.G. and Turner, M. (1997) Does neighborhood matter? Assessing recent evidence. Housing Policy Debate 8 (4): 833–866.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Fletcher, D.R. (2008) Tackling concentrations of worklessness: Highlighting the limits of work-focused organisational cultures in the UK. Environment and Planning C-Government and Policy 26 (3): 563–582.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Gallie, D. (1998) Restructuring the Employment Relationship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Gallie, D. (2002) The quality of working life in welfare strategy. In: D. Gallie and G. Esping-Andersen (eds.) Why We Need a New Welfare State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Gallie, D. and Paugam, S. (2002) Social Precarity and Social Integration: Eurobarometer 56.1. Brussels: European Commission.

  40. Giddens, A. (2007) You need greater equality to achieve more social mobility. The Guardian.

  41. Goldthorpe, J. (2004) Trends in intergenerational mobility in Britain in the late twentieth century. In: R. Breen (ed.) Social Mobility in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Goldthorpe, J.H. and Mills, C. (2008) Trends in intergenerational class mobility in modern Britain: Evidence from national surveys, 1972–2005. National Institute Economic Review 205 (1): 83–100.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Goos, M. and Manning, A. (2003) Lousy and Lovely Jobs. London: Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Harker, L. (2006) Ending Child Poverty: What Would It Take? Norwich: HMSO. A Report for the Department for Work and Pensions.

  45. Harrison, J. (2007) From competitive regions to competitive city-regions: A new orthodoxy, but some old mistakes. Journal of Economic Geography 7 (3): 311–332.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. HM Government. (2009) New Opportunities: Fair Chances for the Future. Cm 7533. Norwich: The Stationary Office.

  47. HM Government. (2010) The Coalition: Our Programme for Government – Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility. London: Cabinet Office.

  48. HM Government. (2011) Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility. London: Cabinet Office.

  49. HM Treasury. (2000) Spending Review 2000 Public Service Agreements White Paper. London: TSO.

  50. HM Treasury. (2004) Child Poverty Review. London: HM Treasury.

  51. HM Treasury. (2011) The Plan for Growth. London: Treasury.

  52. Hogarth, T., Gambin, L., Bosworth, D. and Wilson, R.A. (2009) Empirical Review of Employer Training, Wath-upon-Dearne, UK: UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

  53. Hooghe, L. and Marks, G.N. (2001) Types of multi-level governance. European Integration Online Papers,, accessed 20 June 2011.

  54. Houston, D. (2005) Employability, skills mismatch and spatial mismatch in metropolitan labour markets. Urban Studies 42 (2): 221–243.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Hutton, J. (2006) Welfare Reform: 10 Years on, 10 Years Ahead. Speech.

  56. IPPR. (2005) Equity and Excellence: Education and Social Mobility. A keynote speech by Ruth Kelly MP, Secretary of State for Education and Skills. London.

  57. Jæger, M.M. and Holm, A. (2007) Does parents’ economic, cultural, and social capital explain the social class effect on educational attainment in the Scandinavian mobility regime? Social Science Research 36 (2): 719–744.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Johnson, A. (2006) In Defence of the State: The Role of Education in Tackling Poverty. Speech to the Social Market Foundation.

  59. Lambert, P., Prandy, K. and Bottero, W. (2007) By slow degrees: Two centuries of social reproduction and mobility in Britain. Sociological Research Online,

  60. Leitch, S. (2006) Prosperity for All in the Global Economy – World Class Skills. London: HMSO. Final Report.

  61. Lucas, S.R. (2001) Effectively maintained inequality: Education transitions, track mobility, and social background effects. American Journal of Sociology 106 (6): 1642–1690.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Lupton, R. (2003) ‘Neighbourhood Effects’: Can We Measure Them and Does It Matter: CASE Paper 73. London: Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics.

  63. Narey, M. (2007) Mind the gap. The Guardian Society.

  64. Narey, M. (2009) Report from the Independent Commission on Social Mobility. London: Liberal Democrats.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Nunn, A. (2005) The political economy of crisis and global governance: A thesis submitted to the University of Manchester for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Humanities. University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.

  66. Nunn, A. (2007) Competitiveness and the New Labour Project. Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness, No. 8.

  67. Nunn, A. (2008) Restructuring the English Working Class for Global Competitiveness. Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness, No. 9.

  68. Nunn, A. (2012) Social Mobility and Social Cohesion in European Countries. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, forthcoming.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Nunn, A., Bickerstaffe, T., Hogarth, T. and Green, A.E. (2010) Post-code Selection? Employers’ Use of Address-based Information Shortcuts in Recruitment Decisions. Norwich: HMSO. DWP Research Report.

  70. Nunn, A., Johnson, S., Monro, S., Bickerstaffe, T. and Kelsey, S. (2007) Factors Influencing Social Mobility: Department for Work and Pensions. Leeds: Department for Work and Pensions. Research Report 450.

  71. OECD. (2008) Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries: Country Note. Germany and Paris: OECD.

  72. OECD. (2010) Education at a Glance 2010. Paris: OECD.

  73. Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. (2009) Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. London: Cabinet Office.

  74. Peck, J. and Tickell, A. (2002) Neoliberalizing space: The free economy and the penal state. In: N. Brenner and N. Theodore (eds.) Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Polanyi, K. (1957) The Great Transformation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Power, A. (1996) Area-based poverty and resident empowerment. Urban Studies 33 (9): 1535–1564.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Royal Society. (2008) Exploring the Relationship between Socioeconomic Status and Participation and Attainment in Science Education. London: Royal Society.

  78. Sanderson, I. (2007) Worklessness and Deprived Neighbourhoods: A Review of Evidence. Report for the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit London: DCLG.

  79. Smith, N. and Middleton, S. (2007) A Review of Poverty Dynamics Research in the UK. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  80. Soss, J. and Schram, S.F. (2007) A public transformed? Welfare reform as policy feedback. The American Political Science Review 101 (1): 111–127.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. Spiegel, P. (2011) EU presidents draft competitiveness pact. Financial Times.

  82. Ward, K and Jonas, A.E.G. (2004) Competitive city-regionalism as a politics of space: A critical reinterpretation of the new regionalism. Environment and Planning A 3 (12): 2119–2139.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. 4Children and Day Care Trust. (2011) 250 sure start children's centres face closure within a year. Web Story, 4Children.

Download references


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

Author information



Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nunn, A. The political economy of competitiveness and social mobility. Br Polit 7, 86–110 (2012).

Download citation


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