In recent years, something profound has been happening to the concept of social mobility. With the concept being reconsidered on both sides of the political spectrum, its usefulness has been interrogated and, on the left, cast aside.
Conservatives, however, have reconceptualised what it means, spurred on by the influential blog ConservativeHome (henceforth ConHome). An intensively political blog, it hosts interventions pushing for change in the party’s outlook.
Prior to the UK general elections of 2017 and 2019, the Conservatives had been closely identified with the idealisation of middle-class lifestyles. Their success in breaking down the ‘red wall’ therefore involved a re-evaluation of what the party stood for—including a move away from automatically connecting the idea of bettering oneself with a vision of white-collar employment and academic success.
I argue, first, that the notion of society becoming more professional does not tally with where the emergent Conservative discourse currently stands. Yet I argue, second, that social mobility remains central to contemporary thinking on the right as an encapsulation of a positive idea of personal drive.
‘Escape ideology’ and its critics
New Labour’s classic vision of social mobility was embodied in Alan Milburn’s 2009 report, Unleashing Aspiration: to be able to leave behind low income, blue-collar family origins to become a high earning white-collar professional. This synonymised ‘professional’ with ‘middle class’, and assumed that professional vocations were inherently more rewarding and valuable. This vision was critiqued on the left throughout the 2010s and beyond.
On the right, criticism of the classic vision of social mobility came later, in key books such as David Skelton’s Little Platoons (2019) and The New Snobbery (2021), and Nick Timothy’s Remaking One Nation (2020). A right-wing concern was that New Labour’s vision of ‘escape’ had been adopted by middle-class Conservatives. This concern was most visible on ConHome in the contributions of the PR strategist James Frayne. In a 2020 post, Frayne pointed out how ‘the Conservatives’ obsession with social mobility’ potentially belittled the types of voters who had turned to the party in 2019: ‘It sounds [as though Conservatives are] saying ordinary people have crap lives and could “do so much better” [by becoming middle class].’ He wrote: ‘Most people are basically happy with their lot and want to stay living in their local communities with their families.’
The technical turn
By 2020 the concept of social mobility had arrived at a crossroads. While Labour ended its commitment to social mobility in 2019, advocating a Social Justice Commission in place of the Social Mobility Commission, ConHome commentators such as Frayne and Skelton were also querying what social mobility could really mean.
A contribution by Frayne, written after the 2017 election, described ‘social mobility’ as merely a synonym for ‘opportunities’. More obliquely, Skelton’s 2021 contribution made a linguistic slide from social mobility to economic mobility.
A key underpinning factor behind ConHome contributors’ new definitions of social mobility was a new diagnosis of the country’s future economic needs in the digital era. There were fears about the new ‘hourglass economy’; a ‘hollowing out’ of the UK jobs market where society would become more polarised.
In this context, both access to the professions and the place of mass academic learning came into question. Future demand for low and mid-ranking professional work was predicted to plateau or reduce, with demand soaring for work in ‘non-routine’ menial jobs, such as in the care sector. It would follow, then, that the latter roles might ultimately be the most fruitful ones for workers hopeful of better pay and conditions. Thus, to return to Skelton’s conceptualisation, there was a promise of ‘economic mobility’ for people ‘at lower skill levels’. Via this critique of social mobility, ConHome’s commentators seemed to be the new egalitarians.
What extra ingredient might differentiate the new egalitarians and their critique of social mobility from the left-wing writers?
The hyper-liberal threat
There were concerns about academic education being hijacked by a hostile cultural leftism, captured on ConHome in January 2020 by Jonathan Clark: ‘How could the young vote Conservative, after such a value-based education?’ In this context, ‘multiple, equally valid routes to economic mobility’ allowed people to better themselves while avoiding the ‘great awokening’ offered by academic education. What might happen collectively if too many working-class children become caught up in the hyper-liberal educational machine?
If we dig deeper, there was also a positive, yet distinctively Conservative conceptualisation of the working class as a matter of local identity and geographical rootedness—instead of being a cultural and economic interest group, as seen on the left. A wellspring for this new conceptualisation was David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere (2017).
So, why social mobility?
The last question is why, despite this analysis, there is still enthusiasm on the pages of ConHome (unlike The Guardian) for themes around social mobility. Perhaps the answer lies in a peculiar dimension of right-wing thought: the way in which fairness goes hand-in-hand with competition.
Social mobility, in this slant, points to having competitive grit and agency. ‘Everybody’, in this vision, can become a go-getter and a choice-maker. We see this ideal in ConHome in a contribution by Sajid Javid on his own social mobility, where he writes: ‘I am used to people trying to tell me what I can’t do, and I’m used to proving people wrong.’ Tellingly, this same framework was at the centre of the major statement on social mobility made by the Conservative-led coalition in 2010.
This emphasis on individuals being able to take charge is easy to find in ConHome posts from the recent past, such as this article by Alexandra Marsanu and this article by Peter Saunders. The focus is on the ability to believe in oneself and find purpose in life—implying, importantly for Conservatives, the ability to compete.
The Conservative arguments built around ‘economic mobility’ reflect a different vision from Milburn’s ever more professionalised economy. Partly there is a re-tread of left-wing positions, that most voters are not in reality ascending into the elite, and most people are (and will be) ‘somewheres’ who are rooted in their communities. The distinctively Conservative additions are that most people have no innate interest in hyper-liberalism, and, psychologically, they will need to be facilitated to ‘seize control’ in the shifting post-digital times ahead.
As a brief final note, this approach is also part of a Conservative electoral ‘big tent’. The basic idea of productive self-mastery and ‘getting on’ is a translatable language across so many different types of people. The recalibration is, therefore, an audacious idea—and, politically, it may be a smart one.
A longer version of this article is published in the Political Quarterly journal.