Contrast the noisy consensus that something must be done about social mobility with the lack of political will to do anything about it at all.
Unusually for him these days, John Major’s recent intervention on the issue was a red herring. The former Prime Minister is worried about the prospects of someone with his poor background rising to the top in any profession, including politics, implying that the situation has got much worse. But in reality, there was no rosy era.
The election of Conservative leaders, like Major, from non-privileged backgrounds did not signify profound change. In slightly different circumstances, the Etonian Douglas Hurd might have defeated Major in 1990. Similarly, many assumed that the posh Willie Whitelaw would beat the grocer’s daughter from Grantham in 1975. Conversely, David Davis, from an impoverished council estate, might have beaten David Cameron in 2010. In each leadership contest, the victory had more to do with perceived ideology and electability. Social mobility was as hopelessly constrained when Major ruled as it is now under an old Etonian.
Part of Major’s solution – a grammar school in every town – would make matters much worse. For those who believe that selection is part of the solution, I recommend the current autobiography of the Queen’s Park Rangers and former Spurs’ manager, Harry Redknapp. Harry is one of the most important political books I have read recently, and something of a miracle considering that the author of the weighty tomb claims he can hardly write.
Here he is on his education in the east end of London: “If you were clever, you went to the local grammar... if you were an idiot, there were … the roughest schools in the area … a pair of nuthouses, really. I can’t remember having too many proper classes or proper teachers. It was student teachers who got dumped there mostly. We did no work and we learned nothing … I think there were 10 kids in my year who left not being able to read or write … if I tried to write you’d think it was a six-year-old who had got hold of the pen and paper.”
Remember the millions of Redknapps left behind in “nuthouses” when another grammar-school celebrity is given a peak-time TV slot to put the case for selection. And yet three recent events suggest politicians’ have little real desire to widen the primrose path to the top through less divisive means.
The first was the so-called “Laura Spence affair” during Labour’s first term. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown raised the case of state-educated Spence, who had failed to secure a place at Magdalen College even though she had achieved the most sparkling grades possible. “hen Brown highlighted the College’s rejection of Spence, all hell broke loose – but not in favour of the state-school applicant. There was outrage in the media that Brown should intervene. And within the chronically insecure Government, there was fear that the row would be seen as a return to “old Labour”. Brown backed down. Privately Ed Miliband and Ed Balls – both working for Brown at the time – regard that as the defining moment when New Labour lost its chance to be radical game–changers. The two Eds might not get on well, their offices may currently view one another with suspicion or frustrated anger, but the duo agreed on the potency of the Spence story as a way to unlock the closed debate about access to top universities and the dominance of the private schools. Within a few seconds, however, the debate was locked once more.
The next key occurrence was the introduction of top-up charges for students and, then, the tripling of fees after the 2010 election. The repayment schemes are fair, but over time the Government will almost certainly lose the power to regulate admissions. If the top universities start to charge more – as they ache to do – they will also assert the right to do what they want with admissions. If they want the entire sixth form of Eton, they will have it.
The reluctance of the current Conservative leadership to intervene in this new market is proven by the third depressing event of recent years. All hell broke loose once more when the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, sought to appoint Les Ebdon as the fair access regulator. In short, Ebdon believes in fairer access and was therefore deemed to be unsuitable as the fair access regulator. Cameron was under immense pressure to block the appointment and although he went ahead with it, he did so with huge reluctance.
The appointment of Ebdon and the short-lived Laura Spence campaign were hardly revolutionary moves and yet Cable had to be strong to hold his ground and Brown wobbled quickly. For all the current consensual talk about the urgent need for social mobility, the struggle to widen the routes to the top has hardly begun. The current sheltered path still has intoxicating attractions for those who take it.
The Tories will not win by copying
David Cameron and George Osborne are looking to the past for guidance as they seek to win the forthcoming election in 2015.
The Prime Minister admitted at the weekend that he sees parallels with 1992, which was the last time that his party won an overall majority. And in an article earlier this year, the Chancellor too cited the same Tory campaign.
Such public comments are odd, not least because they – rather generously – alert their opponents to precisely how the Conservatives propose to attack them. The Labour leadership has been given advance warning that it faces a “tax bombshell” onslaught, as it did more than 20 years ago, along with other familiar barbs from that era.
But such derivative strategic thinking will not work. Each election is unique, rooted in its own time. In 1992, John Major was a new, fresh Tory leader while his opponent, Neil Kinnock, had been running the Opposition for nine torrid years.
In striking contrast, by 2015 Cameron will himself have been the party leader for a wearying decade. In addition, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will not fall into the “tax and spend” trap as Labour did in 1992. It is no coincidence that Miliband’s most well-known policy – the energy price freeze – does not cost a penny of public money.
I can see how it would be possible for the Conservatives to win a majority next time, but it is not by looking back. There is a pattern here, though. In the build-up to the last election, the Tory leadership sought to copy New Labour’s winning formula in 1997, and even declared their act of imitation publicly, proclaiming regularly that they were following the New Labour guidebooks. What is notable, of course, is that it did not work then, either.