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My grandfather, a bit like John Prescott, was a pitbull terrier of a man who dedicated much of his life to the Labour Party in Hull.

Like Prescott, he always considered himself working class; unlike him, he never got to drive even one Jag.

My father, being a rebel, joined the expanding middle classes, moving south in the 1950s and qualifying as an architect. He never had much time for the Labour Party.

My sister, the eldest of my generation, was the first in our family to gain a university education, demonstrating the kind of intergenerational shift that’s at the heart of the current academic and political discussion of social mobility.

The goal of spreading such opportunities will dominate the forthcoming white paper on fairness, and underlies this week’s report from the prime minister’s strategy unit.

This study suggests that after remaining broadly static since the 1970s, social mobility is increasing again.

That’s good, because the life chances of poorer people are improving. And since every mainstream party has signed up to the principle of equal opportunity, if not to the means of achieving it, you’d expect whoops of celebration all round.

Not a bit of it. Shadow work and pensions secretary Chris Grayling calls it ‘a damning indictment of 11 years of Labour government, of vast amounts of money spent on regeneration programmes…’

It’s certainly no time to rest on laurels. But before we use social mobility as a political football, let’s think a bit more carefully about the game.

Fairness is an admirable objective, but we should pause before making mobility the first test of social policy.

Big advances in social mobility are associated with economic expansion, and that – for now, anyway – is coming to an end. The option of getting ever-better jobs by lapping up the cream of the global economy is off the agenda.

The second difficulty is that while the government is right to emphasise standards of childcare, education and training as the path to a better qualified workforce, it doesn’t follow that this workforce will grab a bigger share of global opportunities.

Comparisons with educational standards elsewhere show how fast we need to run just to stand still.

The pursuit of fairness through individual competitiveness is doomed to failure.

We need to emphasise qualities as well as qualifications, social capital as well as social chances. The best future we can create is one we work for together rather than one that continues to pit us against each other.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine


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