The ‘Blair Revolution’ was motivated in large part by the idea that the electorate would accept a neoliberal economic policy if it came with a well-funded NHS and stronger public schools. Equality of outcome was out the door, to be replaced by a belief in the new meritocracy. It was said to be a modern agenda for the new global age.
Since the election of Corbyn as leader, Labour’s core policy agenda has expanded far beyond the narrow focus of the Blairites, Brownites and Mili… um, supporters of Ed Miliband. This has happened in a very short time, and has led to some criticism from those who believe, either for ideological or tactical reasons, that Labour should focus on what they consider its core programme.
Here’s why I think Corbyn’s Labour is on the right lines. I’ll look in turn at education, health and social mobility, arguing that we must go far beyond them if we want to have a genuinely transformative effect on the lives of the people we care about.
Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ encapsulates the centrist worldview so perfectly that it’s surprising he actually said it. It’s as if Sir Morton Stanley really had said ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’, or the thrifty Russians had genuinely outsmarted bloated NASA bureaucrats by using a pencil instead of a bespoke space pen costing millions. Perhaps one day there’ll be a QI in which we find out the quote was just spliced that way by a spin doctor, and Blair had really listed his priorities as: ‘Education, less food for Iraqis, and a more efficient means for criminalising bored teenagers.’
In any case, the idea that education is the solution to all social ills is comforting to left, right and centre alike. Even more apolitical activists, such as those in the sceptical movement, will often conclude that the answer is more education, whatever issue is under review. In fact, this might be the only statement a sceptic is allowed to make that doesn’t have the support of a mountain of meta-studies.
I heartily recommend Thomas Frank’s recent polemic, ‘Listen, Liberal’, which looks into the doctrine that education is the solution to all the biggest economic challenges of the modern world. Frank cites Bill Clinton’s 1992 speech, in which the President said:
‘The world we face today is the world where what you earn depends on what you can learn. There’s a direct relationship between high skills and high wages, and therefore we have to educate our people to compete.’ (p69)
Frank accepts that this makes some sense as a platitude, on the grounds that ‘none of us would get very far if we didn’t learn to read or do math.’
‘But it doesn’t take an advanced degree to figure out that this education talk is less a strategy for mitigating inequality than it is a way of rationalising it… From this perspective, wages aren’t what they are because one party (management) has a certain amount of power over the other; wages are like that because the God of the market, being surpassingly fair, rewards those who show talent and gumption.’
He then goes onto review some of the economic data, which shows that, by the 1990s, American workers were consistently improving their productivity (presumably showing much talent and gumption) without seeing any growth in wages. So perhaps, his argument goes, worker skills were never the key issue.
To return to the UK, Owen Jones looked at the reality behind the rhetoric of the knowledge economy in ‘Chavs’, first published in 2011. He sees some justification for cynicism about the transformative power of education amongst some working-class communities. Newcastle supermarket worker observed:
‘There’s people who’ve gone to university, got their degrees, and can’t find anything else.’ (p 176)
The Guardian recently cited a study claiming that over 5 million Brits are overqualified for their jobs. Outliers notwithstanding, wealth inequality will continue to ensure that the game Is rigged, regardless of how much the overall educational level of Britain’s young people improves. Put simply, if poorer people get degrees, their richer competitors will do doctorates. If poorer people can make it through a PhD, the richer ones will do unpaid postdocs – whatever it takes for the bulk of the competition to fall away.
When we focus on the more important issues of primary and secondary education, we find similar assumptions dominating the discussion. Better schools, for example, are seen as the answer to most of society’s ills. The evidence, as education expert Fiona Miller told Jones, suggests that the effect of school quality on children’s outcomes is closer to just 20%.
That said, education, as the economic philosopher Amartya Sen has argued, is a form of development in itself, and there’s nothing in these arguments to suggest our education system shouldn’t be better funded and managed for the benefit of all. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of making inequality and under-employment a problem chiefly for schools and colleges.
In the UK, we tend to use ‘health care’ and ‘health’ interchangeably. When we talk about ‘health spending’ for example, we really mean ‘health care spending’ – money for doctors, nurses and drugs etc. rather than for cycle lanes, football pitches or, say, free, nutritious school meals. Perhaps conflating the general idea of health with the more specific issue of health care has made some tactical sense for Labour – nobody wants to argue against health after all – but it hasn’t come without costs.
The problem is that even a well-funded NHS that’s free at the point of use is quite compatible with massive inequities in health outcomes.
Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL, is a world-renowned expert in the social determinants of health. Born in Australia, he trained as a doctor at the University of Sydney during the 1960s, but soon realised the limits of what he could achieve in a primary care role.
Marmot then changed direction, broadening his studies to include, in simple terms, the things that make us sick. His influential Whitehall Study, which started in 1967, found a strong link between health outcomes and grade levels amongst British civil servants. Specifically, the lower the rank, the higher the mortality rate, with cardiovascular disease being particularly strongly correlated.
Since the Whitehall study, Marmot has chaired the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health, held the Presidency of the World Medical Association and, in 2010, produced the influential Marmot Review for the British Government. The thesis of his recent book ‘The Health Gap’ is clear:
“Access to high-quality health care for everyone would be a good thing, but health inequalities would not go away. Health inequalities arise from the conditions that make people ill; health care is what’s needed to treat people when they get sick. Lack of health is no more a cause of ill health than aspirin deficiency is a cause of headache.” (p72)
He continues with an interesting example. In the UK, we spend about 40% as much on health care as the US does, yet Americans have poorer health overall. Amazingly, this comparison holds even when we take into account those US citizens who have no health insurance.
For a shocking snapshot of disparities in life expectancies in London alone, take a look at the ‘Lives on the line’ project.
The conclusion is that, if we want our fellow citizens to live longer, healthier lives, we should resist attempts to reduce the progressive policy agenda to neoliberalism + public health care. Of course, it’s better than neoliberalism without an NHS, but not by as much as some would have us believe.
The evidence is clearly on our side, so let’s keep working on solutions to the causes of poor health. But we should also accept that there are severe limits on what we can achieve through public health provision, unless we also have better policies to tackle inequality, poor housing, the national diet, air pollution, unhealthy working practices, depleted or expensive leisure services, and awful public transport, to name just a handful.
Social mobility has been a pillar of every governments’ ideology at least since Thatcher.
At the most basic level, most of us would prefer to live in a country in which jobs were done by the most suitable people, rather than those who inherited them due to circumstantial advantages. But, as we’ve seen with education and health, there’s no reason why a country with high levels of social mobility would necessarily be one without enormous inequities.
Firstly, the idea that poorer people can educate and work themselves out of party rests on a fallacy of composition. No matter how many disadvantaged people managed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to train as managers, doctors or lawyers, etc., millions of people will still be needed to staff the factories and call centres, sweep the streets, care for the elderly and do all the other tasks that keep the world turning. Of course, it’s unfair that the best jobs are overwhelmingly hoarded by the children of wealthy parents. But it’s even worse to ignore the plight of Britain’s underpaid mass of workers, and worse still to tell them they’re there on merit.
Even if it were true that anybody can rise the top, it doesn’t follow that everyone can, and it’s everyone we should be worried about.
Secondly, I’m less interested in the distribution of extreme wealth and extreme poverty than I’m keen that we do away with both of them. Certainly, women and members of ethnic minorities are over-represented amongst the poorest people in our country. But our goal should be to end the poverty, not to ensure that those just on (or under) the breadline are the worst educated or least talented amongst us.
Thirdly, it’s common to equate disparate terms like ‘merit’, ‘hard work’ and ‘talent’, while forgetting that the market cares principally about supply and demand. Success (unless we’re talking about inherited wealth of course) is about scarcity, not graft – which is incidental. As Raoul Martinez has explained, if half of all the builders in the world were to suddenly disappear, those remaining would see their incomes boom. It would have had nothing to do with anyone working harder.
Fourthly, assigning jobs and money according to merit ignores the ultimate source of that merit. Some young graduates have the means to fill their CVs with international internships, multiple degrees, voluntary expeditions and more. Imagine the effect this has, not just on their applications, but on their confidence at interview, relative to others who’ve been able to do little else than squeeze in their studies around part-time work (if they’ve been able to study at all).
To illustrate with a couple of personal examples (I’m TOTALLY over both of them of course…), I co-wrote a couple of kids’ TV comedy shows while studying for my degree. Towards the end of my third year, feeling quite optimistic that my foot was firmly in the door, I called the producer I’d worked with to ask his advice, or even to probe him about the chance of a job at his sizeable media company. He said ‘Yeah sure – I’m sure we can find you a position. Can you come up to Glasgow for a year? There won’t be any money of course.” With an already maxed-out student overdraft and credit card, I had to decline.
I then spent the year working in admin to clear some debts and save for further study, having decided I might be better off doing something related to my politics degree instead of the media. I applied to City University for an MSc in International Politics, thinking it looked like the most practical, career-focused course in this area. The admissions tutor gave me a call, and said: ‘Yep, all fine on the academic front. But you’ll need some experience. Could you go to Geneva for the summer?’
In these little self-pitying forays, I’m of course ignoring all the others my age who had far fewer advantages than I did, many of whom would have been left with a pathetic range of options as adults. Without parental love and encouragement, decent schools, good advice and all the things I’ve surely never even noticed from my position of relative privilege, I would never have made it to university in the first place.
Fifthly, and perhaps most cynically, one can’t help but wonder why social mobility has been embraced by the country’s political and financial elite, along with their parliamentary representatives. After all, social mobility works both ways, and therefore the rich should have everything to lose from a more socially mobile society and little or nothing to gain. So why so little resistance to the concept?
Perhaps it’s because, as Thomas Frank argued, the doctrine is more about rationalising inequality than mitigating it. It’s about giving further moral authority to the rich and powerful – convincing society that they’ve earnt what they have, just like shelf-stackers on zero hours contracts similarly deserve what they’re given.
And sixthly and most damningly, we’re rubbish at social mobility. Despite decades of government after government claiming to make it a priority, very little has been achieved. A recent report by the Social Mobility Commission made grim reading, with a foreword that states:
“Our country has reached an inflection point. If we go on as we have been, the divisions that have opened up in British society are likely to widen not narrow. There is a growing sense in the nation that these divisions are not sustainable, socially, economically or politically. There is a hunger for change. The policies of the past have brought some progress, but many are no longer fit for purpose in our changing world.”
The report is a mixed bag, looking in-depth at several indicators that have no obvious connection to social mobility per se, such as trends in public spending, the unemployment rate, poverty pay and income inequality. It focuses on educational achievement, for example, but simply assumes a strong relationship between education and overall life chances. Still, in general, despite the political nature of these Committee reports, the pessimistic tone is unmistakable and it’s clear to Alan Milburn and co. that the failures outnumber the successes.
Perhaps if social mobility had proven to be an easy gain – a way for centrists to show that neoliberalism needn’t be incompatible with giving everyone a ‘fair go’ as they say in Australia – then the case for the prosecution would have been harder to make. But it’s clear that the goal of social mobility without making broader social changes still presents us with a mountain to climb.
Besides, as I’ve argued above, it’s the inequality itself that should occupy us most of all, not just what these disparities mean for social mobility.
Beyond health, education and social mobility
We’ve seen that healthcare is just one of a wide range of factors that determine public health, and that schools can only achieve so much. None of this is meant to detract from the talent, professionalism and graft that enable our NHS and our education system to achieve all it does. But it does mean we’re setting our doctors, nurses and teachers up to fail by asking more from then than anyone can reasonably expect from them.
By falling back on social mobility and letting inequality slide from the agenda, we risk much more than just missing the bigger and more important picture. We can find ourselves complicit in rationalising the inequities of our society, implying that extreme disparities of wealth and power can be justified on moral grounds. The pragmatic case – that social mobility is a more achievable goal in the global age – fails principally because progress even on this limited measure has been all-but negligible.
When Labour’s 2017 General Election Manifesto was released, many people (including me) worried instinctively that it was too wide-ranging, too scattergun, to appeal to an electorate with little time or patience to make sense of it. I quickly saw that I was wrong about this, and believe we should rejoice that Labour’s days of ‘education, education, education’ are gone, gone, gone.