Leading article: A big idea – but will these tiny sums really help?

Share
Related Topics

After months of posturing from Downing Street on subjects ranging from terrorism to the oil price, it is refreshing to see Gordon Brown engaging with the sort of issue that brought him into politics in the first place: social mobility. In a speech yesterday, Mr Brown called it: "The greatest test of our time – to build a fairer, more prosperous and upwardly mobile Britain". He is right about the fundamental moral importance of this issue. It is a scandal that, despite decades of economic growth, the best predictor of a child's future status and well-being in 21st century Britain is the wealth of the family they are born into. Nor can this inequitable situation be pinned on unfortunate shifts in the global economy. A study by the Sutton Trust last year found that, along with the United States, Britain has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world.

Mr Brown is also right about the strategic political importance of the issue. If he does not assert ownership of it, David Cameron will happily fill the gap with his compelling analysis of Britain's "broken society". Yet the Prime Minister's analysis of how we came to this pass is deficient. In his speech yesterday, he argued that the great post-war gains in social mobility stalled in the 1970s and 1980s leaving a "lost generation" of "Thatcher's children". This partisan framing of the history is a mistake. Failures in the state education system – one of the root causes of stalled social mobility – are a responsibility of both Labour and Conservative administrations.

It was Labour who pushed through the flawed comprehensive secondary school model in the 1960s and 70s. And Margaret Thatcher watched hundreds of grammar schools close during her time in power. For all their manifest faults, it was these schools that had propelled a generation of modestly-born children into positions of power and influence. Mr Brown should know all about this; he was one of them.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, he has done some important work since 1997 in levelling the playing field through his tax credits and "baby bonds". But his approach has been too focused on income inequalities. Parental poverty of ambition is just as damaging to a child's life chances.

Both parties have also ignored the fact that to have upward social mobility, it is also necessary to have some level of downward social mobility. The Tories' populist attack on inheritance tax was stolen wholesale last autumn by Mr Brown, panicked by the debacle over the non-election. Yet what more pernicious means of cementing income divisions in society exists than hefty untaxed inheritances?

Mr Brown's big idea yesterday was a Child Development Grant. Parents in deprived communities will be given £200 grants in return for taking part in programmes to improve the "health, well-being and social development" of their children. This is based on schemes in the US that have targeted the most "hard to reach" families. This approach should not be dismissed. Early-years intervention is an intelligent focus, considering all the research that indicates a child's life chances are often determined by the age of five. Yet the sums here are so small that it is hard to see it having any significant effect in eroding inequalities.

The uncomfortable reality is that Britain is treading water, while other nations are swimming far ahead. It will take a sustained assault by government on the causes of inequality, across education, welfare and taxation, to deliver the type of fair society that all the political parties claim to want. Tinkering has not worked. Now is the time to think big.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £38,000

£16000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued expansion, an ...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£65000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A long-established, tech...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Software Development Project Manager - Kingston Upon Thames

£55000 - £60000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Experienced Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Most powerful woman in British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
All the major parties are under pressure from sceptical voters to spell out their tax and spending plans  

Yet again, the economy is the battleground on which the election will be fought

Patrick Diamond
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders