Mary Dejevsky: A failed meritocracy that leaves too many out of the loop

What is networking, if not work experience for adults?
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The Independent Online

For a self-confessed metropolitan politics-wonk, I have clearly failed. Any properly plugged-in member of the species would have seen In the Loop, the feature-film derived from the television series The Thick of It, weeks ago, at one of many previews. That I had to wait for the general release and actually pay shows quite how far out of the loop I am. It was scant consolation to learn that inner-loop member, Lord Mandelson, had been sighted at his local cinema on Saturday. I bet he was seeing it for the umpteenth time and just checking a few of the finer details.

This is not, you will be relieved to know, another review. You should not have to rely on someone so poorly connected to judge the film on your behalf. But what struck me was not its artistic merit or otherwise, but its exposure of our governing class: the small circle in which it moves, the exclusiveness of those within it and their contempt for anyone who does not quite fit, but who – by accident? – has been allowed through the charmed portal.

Some, but not all, of these interlopers are women. Believe me, what happens in In the Loop – set in today's Westminster – is quite as sexist (ageist, look-ist, size-ist, homophobic, and probably racist, except there's hardly anyone to be racist about) as anything you find in the Fifties and Sixties dramas now so popular.

All right, you will say, but this is satire, and this is what satire does: it takes things to absurd lengths and twists them. But political satire, as exemplified in Yes, Minister and its successors, must have a kernel of truth for it to work. And the truth that sings out loud and clear from In the Loop is how closed and self-obsessed our governing class now is, and how culturally in-bred. How about widening those entry posts just a little?

The trouble is that this will not be easy. Some of the obstacles were highlighted last week in the first report of the six-month old "Panel on fair access to the professions". The group, chaired by the former minister Alan Milburn, is part of the Prime Minister's response to reports that, after increasing for years, social mobility is in decline.

Even if you accept that trend, and not everyone does, the initial findings of the panel still shock. As more people are going into higher education, it turns out that entry to the professions has become more restrictive, with access governed by "who you know, not what you know" – the words of the report, not mine.

Private schools and Oxbridge are still the nurseries of privilege. As an Oxford graduate, I admit to being more exercised by the former than the latter – why should there not be elite universities so long as competition for entry is open? What has changed over 15 years is that top judges, civil servants, company directors – and journalists – now come from a narrower, and far higher-income, background than they did.

The way that unpaid work has become a pre-condition of entry to many professions, the use of family connections, and the expense of living and working in the capital are among the factors the panel cites to explain this. Among its wiser recommendations is open recruitment for internships, now that these have become a significant gateway to the professions.

Entry, though, is only the first step. Many years ago, I was invited for a drink with a commissioning editor at a newspaper I had been writing freelance pieces for. We met in a wine bar; he was with a colleague; a bottle of claret was ordered, and we had a gentle and enjoyable conversation. A few years later, when I had been on the staff of that same paper for a while, the then junior editor, now promoted, remarked: "You know, you did one of the absolute worst interviews of anyone we ever considered employing. You blew it."

I racked my brains. It turned out that the drinks I had treated as purely social were by way of a job interview. Yet the word job, or anything like it, was never mentioned. For my first paid work, at the BBC, I had answered an advert, taken tests and been interviewed. Well, well, I thought, contemplating the train-wreck of a long-past glass of claret that had delayed my arrival in the press, so this is how the rest of the world works.

Such naivety would be much rarer now. The advice universally dispensed today is to "network". And, of course, the more loops you get into, the more productive networking becomes. What used to be an invitation to cocktails is now openly called "networking", even on the invitation. And what is networking, if not a sort of work experience for adults, a mechanism for bypassing formal structures and perpetuating exclusivity? It is the pernicious secret that still determines who is in the loop.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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