Tag Archives: Liberal Democrats

Workfare: doesn’t work, not fair.

by Anne Archist

So, the workfare debate has remained in the headlines since my last post on it… That’s interesting, as I didn’t think there would be quite this much public anger over the proposals – if anything, I thought most people would just ejaculate DailyMailisms in the direction of anyone who dared to question a system of transitory, mandatory, unpaid labour. The government has been in a right flap over the campaign against workfare, resorting to a whole host of amusing tactics, with some degree of cooperation from third parties. I’ll give a run-down of some of the controversy with relevant links, and then move onto the question of the government’s real misdirection tactics.

A comedy of ostriches

First there was the hilarious claim by Chris Grayling that the SWP had “hacked” his email account. Apparently he told the Daily Mail that “‘Somebody used my email address to lodge a formal complaint with Tesco. This campaign has got fake activity”. He also told the BBC: “Let me give you an example, my own e-mail address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco, so I don’t accept the scale of the campaign is very large “. This was given short shrift, and he toned it down to the bizarre and vague assertion that his account had been “used in the campaign”.

After that nonsense, there was the question of Datasift research into the debate. Newsnight’s article on workfare suggested that the research had measured the hashtag #welfaretowork; if this is in fact the case, they are obviously idiots because most people are using #workfare. Datasift claim they included #workfare in their research, but I have my doubts as to how true this is. Perhaps this will be clarified in some way, but at present they seem to have deleted some or all of the tweets where they claimed they had included #workfare – several can be seen on google cached versions of pages but not on the actual twitter streams themselves. I have no idea why this might be so.

So where do we stand?

So far, so typical. Apparently nobody’s talking about it, those that are don’t understand it, those that do aren’t bothered by it, and those campaigning against it are – without exception – trots (which, I take it, are alien creatures something like this). This is the sort of masterful Machiavellianism we have come to expect from subtle statesmen like Chris Grayling. The outcome of all of this is that after companies threatening to pull out, protests and so on, the government have amended the rules so that people will no longer be sanctioned if they pull out of the work experience.

The spin on this change is that it’s all ok now because everyone taking part in the scheme is doing so voluntarily. The unspoken implication here is that it’s therefore none of anyone else’s business. I think this is a deliberate tactic of misdirection (combined with prioritising the demands of corporations over those of citizens/workers/consumers).

 The real problems

The government’s workfare schemes have serious and systematic problems that cannot be put right by ensuring that the schemes are voluntary. Participants are likely not to be in a position to make an informed and uncoerced decision about whether it’s worth working for free, due to a combination of government propaganda, poor ‘economic literacy’ among the general population and Jobcentre lies (they have been known to tell people schemes are compulsory when they’re voluntary, etc).

Even if all the participants take part entirely voluntarily, this still poses a problem for the rest of us, since it puts downward pressure on the terms and conditions of everyone else – if firms can acquire free labour based on the hope of future work, they are less likely to take on more staff, raise the wages of those they already have, etc. Labour-market competition will drive down wages in the private sector, which will probably then increase the public/private divide, leading to more conflict and hostility towards public sector pay and conditions, thus indirectly eroding them via increasing public support for the government doing so.

More harm than good?

This question of less staff being taken on brings us on to the next problem, which is that the scheme may actually make unemployment worse. The data released so far suggests that participants are on JSA longer on average than non-participants, and that dreaded beast “common sense” suggests that workers will create less jobs if free labour is available than they would otherwise. The notion that workfare would alleviate unemployment is based on the idea that a noticeable chunk of unemployment in this country is caused by a lack of basic employment experienced at an unskilled level. This seems simply unrealistic – I find it hard to envisage a situation in which employers are throwing their hands up in despair because they refuse to employ people who haven’t sat behind a checkout.

Are loads of huge corporations sitting around twiddling their thumbs saying “Oh golly, we’d love to employ someone to fill this role in the company, but none of them has shelf-stacking experience, so I guess we’ll just have to wait however long it takes until someone comes up who has”?  I find that very hard to believe. If they’re not, then the work experience itself isn’t really going to help. It merely means that a company that would otherwise employ someone with no experience will be employing somebody with some experience. And this assessment makes sense – how does providing more people with experience create jobs?

Recall that there are less jobs available than there are people looking for work. Part of this is because our economy assumes a natural rate of unemployment, of which possibly more in a future post. But nevertheless this means that even if everybody who was looking for work had exactly the skills, contacts, experience, etc they needed to find a job, there would still not be enough to go around. The fact that more skills are available in the economy doesn’t cause employers to want to employ more people; even a highly skilled labour force doesn’t mean full employment, and there is a massive difference between genuine work skills and generalised unskilled work experience.

On that note, it’s important to understand the difference between slating the work experience scheme and being against training for the unemployed in general. Work experience and skills training are different things; the work experience programme is about putting mostly unskilled young workers into unskilled roles for a short period of time in the hope that this will, in the words of the right wing, “get them out of bed in the morning”. I’m not saying this won’t help anybody – I can see how a voluntary agreement to try to do some work every week over a period of time might help someone suffering from depression and so on. But I can’t see it having a positive effect overall because it fails to impart real shortage skills; being a graphic designer, a computer programmer, an electrician or a doctor is not comparable to having spent ages in Poundland making items go ‘beep’ and cleaning up on aisle 5 in Tesco.

The conservative motto

Finally – and I think this has been somewhat understated by the campaigners against workfare due to their focus on the fact that taxpayers are subsidising private firms, etc – there should be a principled opposition to unpaid labour of this kind. The public debate about workfare represents an opportunity to forge an alliance around the issue of unpaid work; it would certainly include claimants and interns – it may also include workers in relation to unpaid overtime and even housewives and feminists of the Wages for Housework persuasion, etc.

In relation to workfare and interns, we should be arguing the point that if  you run a for-profit company and you have someone work for you, the fact that you are ‘providing them with experience’ is not an excuse for not paying them; all work ‘provides people with experience’, but we still pay unless the person doing it is young or has a history of unemployment. This is straightforward exploitation of people’s vulnerability in the labour market. Providing someone with genuine training, as I have said, is not the same as throwing them into an unskilled job for a few weeks.

People don’t necessarily have to be paid to learn useful new skills that employers are demanding and finding a shortage of, but they should certainly be paid to work. There may of course be exceptions in very specific circumstances like genuine volunteering via charitable or political organisations, but if you are creating value that will be appropriated for profit, I see no reason why you shouldn’t receive a wage for doing so. The very least the government could do if they’re not willing to introduce the minimum wage on the programme (although there have been suggestions that it legally applies), or even the apprentice rate for the minimum wage, is make the employers pay the JSA and any expenses directly to the claimant rather than subsidising big business with free labour at the taxpayer’s expense.

There is already an ongoing struggle to get the minimum wage actively applied to interns, but so far there has been little success. Given that companies in some industries habitually rely on several unpaid interns at a time in order to function properly, this is often not the philanthropic provision of training on the job to some lucky apprentice, it is the use of those desperate to break into an industry as free labour to grease the cogs. In fact, apprentices are actually paid, although less than other workers. Socialists often struggle with the incentive structure of capitalism and take a stand on the basis of justice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I can see a case from an economic and politically pragmatic point of view for perhaps conceding that the apprentice rate should apply to interns and jobseekers on work placements, rather than the full minimum wage.

Political misdirection

If people continue to be distracted by the question of whether schemes are compulsory or semi-compulsory or presented as compulsory or whatever, though, they will miss the important questions about remuneration and the wider efficacy of the programme. Personally I don’t think there would be such a big problem with making a scheme compulsory if it was paid, whereas a voluntary but unpaid scheme still raises my hackles. And that’s precisely the point – the government are trying to divert us from the real issues here by purposefully misconstruing the public outcry and leading us down a dead-end path for the sake of preserving corporate subsidies and holding down working class wages and conditions.


Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

Milton Friedman’s Vision for Universities

by Anne Archist

In 1955, Milton Friedman published a highly influential paper entitled ‘The Role of Government in Education’. All the major UK parties have borrowed policies from the text. It argues that lower levels of education should be funded by the state, with only “citizenship or leadership” education being funded beyond this (not “vocational or professional” education); all levels of education should be administered privately, through a system subject to market pressures.

The goal here is to ensure that education providers must respond to “consumer” demands, there is no “unfair” competition between the state and private providers, and only appropriate educational activities are funded. While recognising the difficulty of distinguishing between the two types of education in practice, Friedman holds that they are in principle separable. A key passage dealing with the latter type argues that the market ensures appropriate incentives and it is unjust for taxpayers to bear the costs while graduates reap the benefits.

“[Vocational or professional education] is a form of investment in human capital precisely analogous to investment in machinery, buildings, or other forms of non human capital. Its function is to raise the economic productivity of the human being. If it does so, the individual is rewarded … by receiving a higher return for his services than he would otherwise be able to command. This difference is the economic incentive to acquire the specialized training … [I]f the individual undertakes the investment and if the state neither subsidizes the investment nor taxes the return, the individual (or his parent, sponsor, or benefactor) in general bears all the extra cost and receives all the extra returns: there are no obvious unborne costs or unappropriable returns that tend to make private incentives diverge systematically from those that are socially appropriate”.

The American higher education system has led to an underinvestment in human capital, according to the paper, so easier access to capital must be provided for this purpose. However, if this easy access to capital took the form of state subsidies for students, there would tend to be overinvestment in human capital. Friedman’s solution is to provide an advance for up-front investment secured against later earnings. In the modern political vernacular “the funding follows the student”, exercising market pressures, while the system as a whole is still funded through a form of semi-progressive taxation.

What Friedman’s article doesn’t give due consideration to is the difference between training in different areas – “education” and “training” are treated abstractly. The “return” varies greatly depending on degree subject, and to a lesser extent with race and gender. All of this is obliquely acknowledged when Friedman says that “[Repayment] should in principle vary from individual to individual in accordance with any differences in expected earning capacity”, but there is no exploration of the effects.

Where does this leave arts degrees, which I presume are not covered under training for “citizenship or leadership”, and others that represent a low return compared to the current cost of education? At present, all undergraduate degree courses generally cost the same at a given institution. In some subjects the cost is already greater than the return, and this will only become more common as fees rise and graduate premiums potentially fall due to greater supply of graduates. Medicine degrees, for instance, have a huge impact on earning potential, whereas male arts graduates may not earn any more than they would otherwise, according to some studies (this varies, but there is unanimity on the fact that the arts are currently very low-payoff disciplines). If the student were to bear all the costs of such a degree up-front, they would have no economic incentive to study it. Nobody would want to invest in students on such low-earning courses so easily available capital would dry up in these disciplines; it would represent the death of the arts for all but the wealthiest.

On the other hand, Friedman wants graduates to bear the costs of their own education, so there is no reason why he should support cross-subsidisation between faculties. For consistency, arts subjects would have to be provided at a much lower cost, meaning that medicine, engineering, and similar high-cost, high-return subjects would be even more expensive than they currently are. The gulf in graduate earnings would be reflected by a gulf in tuition costs. This would avoid the death of the arts but may cause less expensive degrees to be seen as the poor person’s degree, as low-quality (‘cheap’ in a derogatory sense), or as unattractive due to evidently low returns.

All of the above is an attempt to impose market logic onto the education system. Despite our best efforts, consecutive governments are following Friedman’s paper as a blueprint – this puts us in a difficult position if we want education to be about more than individuals investing in future earnings. Not only this, but it raises the question of whether the idiosyncrasies of higher education (e.g. providers select consumers as well as vice versa, we only know what we were paying for after the transaction has been completed, etc) conflict with the neoliberal market logic that Friedman sought to discipline it to. I’m interested in that question and might write about it later, but for now I just want to leave you with this question of what further ‘marketisation’ could do in terms of differentiating courses financially, and the broader consequences that these changes might have. Any ideas are welcome in the comments section below.


Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, History, Student Issues, Uncategorized

A brief note about statistics

by Anne Archist

I just wanted to point out something readers might find interesting – a disparity in the government’s statistics. All of the discussion around Frank Field’s claim that 90% of new jobs have gone to immigrants under the coalition made me curious… How many of these ‘new jobs’ have been created by immigrants? After all, most people reading this will probably be aware that many immigrants to the UK are rich Russian, European or North American entrepreneurs and investors. Even at the lower levels of the economy, consider the kebab shop – it may be staffed by immigrants, but isn’t it also owned by one in most cases? Naturally, being curious about this, I submitted some freedom of information requests to relevant government bodies asking them about it. The reply was the same from every department – “we don’t hold that information”. Government immigration policy is being made without any clue as to how many immigrants are easing unemployment in the UK. While I’m not shocked by this, I am a little surprised that they have literally no relevant information whatsoever – I was expecting that they might have some kind of rough or headline figure, even if they couldn’t break that down into accurate categories and tell me how many of these were UK citizens born abroad, how many were EU citizens, etc. So I thought I would let you know, dear readers, because I suspect it is of interest to many of you…

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A Referendum Retrospective

by Anne Archist

The overall result isn’t in yet, but it looks like the no campaign are on course for a 70/30 split victory in yesterday’s referendum. Whatever the exact result, FPTP has definitely taken the day. A substantial majority against AV will secure the tory inclination to spin this as an endorsement of the current system, and to refuse further attempts at reform. The libdems, judging by the local election results and recent polls, are more than decimated and will be in no position to put pressure on anyone for electoral reform agreements; presumably this leaves our only hope of achieving PR in the short term with Labour, among whom there seems to be considerable division on the issue (unlike the libdems), with the LRC seemingly supporting FPTP rather than just opposing AV in the referendum (they repeated false claims by ASLEF that AV “gives some people more votes than others” and their statement generally had the tone of a group quite happy with the status quo, thankyouverymuch).

What can we learn from the referendum, in retrospect? Firstly, the result was probably significantly influenced by utter lies like claims that AV would cost £250m or violate the principle of “one person, one vote”. Secondly, the hypocrisy has been staggering. Labour and the tories both use AV to select their leader, and front-benchers of both parties, as well as some rank and file members of Labour and the vast majority of tory members, supported the no campaign. There’s nothing inherently hypocritical about supporting different voting systems in different contexts, but to do so on the basis that the system is inherently unfair and undemocratic because it gives some people more votes than others (as Cameron and others did) is completely inconsistent.

It’s particularly worrying that the LRC waxed lyrical about “one person, one vote”, given that Labour not only uses AV to elect the leader, but also uses electoral colleges which absolutely uncontroversially do violate that principle (in contrast to AV, which preserves it). There was less objectionable no campaigning from other sources like the RMT – while they also elect their leader by AV, their reasoning was that the referendum was a “distraction”, not that AV was fundamentally unfair. The AWL, CPB, and some others on the left will be celebrating a victory (of sorts!) tonight, but we’ve yet to see whether the reasoning behind their no vote will be borne out in practice – we can assess the help or hindrance this result gives to the cause of PR, and the damage it does to the coalition, but it’s beyond me as to how we’d establish claims that AV would have returned worse governments and so on.

We’ll never know for sure which arguments held most weight with the public, but it certainly seems hard to believe that the poll reflects a fully and honestly informed electorate. If, indeed, about 70% of the public back FPTP purely on the basis that it avoids coalitions and results in strong governments (which as far as I can see was the only argument in favour of FPTP that survives even superficial rational scrutiny), we might as well pack up and hand the country over to the tories and the NF.

Admittedly, there is a generational gap in polls; though PR looks to be even further on the back-burner now, we may see more people becoming comfortable with preferential voting systems over the next decade or two. Interestingly, this may be at least in part due to Labour policies, but not ones to do with constitutional or electoral reform; I’m thinking of their considerable emphasis on more young people going to university, and their devolution of powers.

Regarding the university issue, I’m not saying this because a population with a higher percentage of graduates is better educated and therefore better able to understand the issues – in fact, I doubt this is true except for a very few subjects like economics or maths. The reason that more people going to university could be making a difference is that universities tend to use AV to elect students’ union officers; the more graduates there are in a population, the more people we can expect to have already used AV and therefore got over the barrier of understanding how to mark the ballot correctly, roughly how the votes will be counted, etc. Devolution, of course, has given people in some parts of the UK a chance to get their head around using things other than pure FPTP, particularly in Northern Ireland, where STV is used (more or less identical from the voter’s point of view to AV).

The coming weeks and months should give us a clue as to whether PR will remain a live debate or evaporate into the murky politico shadows it crept from just a few months ago and once again evoke ‘Public Relations’ for most of the electorate. Certainly the former won’t happen on its own – it’s now the responsibility of those on the left that argued for a no-to-AV-yes-to-PR vote to lead  an energetic display of campaigning and debate that will make it impossible for electoral reform to be forgotten amongst the cuts (however much this might piss off Bob Crow), and to give a sharp rebuke to those elements that aligned with them for more conservative reasons, like the LRC.


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Steel City election results

by Edd Mustill

Sheffield is one of those English councils that has “returned to Labour” this week. The party won a comfortable majority at the expense of the LibDems.

The council itself remains Tory-free:

Labour 49 seats (+9) 47.9% (+12.3%)
LibDems 32 seats (-9) 25.9% (-10.3%)
Tories 0 seats (n/c) 11.7% (-2.9%)
Greens 2 seats (n/c) 11.2% (+4.9%)
UKIP 0 seats (n/c) 1.8% (-1.0%)
TUSC 0 seats (n/c) 0.8% (+0.3%)
BNP 0 seats (n/c) 0.4% (-3.4%)
Independent 1 seat (n/c) 0.2% (+0.1%)
SEP 0 seats (n/c) 0.1% (+0.1%)

So even though we have a government made up of two of the three big parties, they can only muster between them just over a third of the vote in a city like Sheffield. In a story close to national patterns, the Tory vote changed only modestly, suggesting large numbers of people switching directly from the LibDems to Labour.

Although much of leafy West Sheffield with its detached houses stayed yellow, Labour did take seats in Broomhill and Crookes (areas with significant student populations whose allegiance was perhaps with Clegg until… you know), as well as Nether Edge. Gleadless Valley with its public sector workers went back to Labour, as did working-class Hillsborough.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is due to the LibDems coalition with the Tories, Clegg’s own unpopularity, the Forgemasters episode, the lack of an economic recovery, etc etc. If anything, I’m surprised that a quarter of voters still backed the LibDems, although in some of the poorest wards (Burngreave, Firth Park) they finished bottom of the heap. Up on the Manor, the two national governing parties mustered less than 600 votes between them.

So where is the coalition government’s mandate to make any decisions affecting the working-class North? Non-existent.

Sheffielders experience of Liberal Democrat administration, between 1999-2002 and 2008-11, has only been that nothing changes. Sheffield’s two-party system means that each party gets punished in turn, usually due to something happening on the national stage. In fact, the council defected to the LibDems fairly early on in the New Labour years, back in ’99. So it’s too early to write-off the yellow-bellies completely; they may well come back when Labour get back into power in Westminster. But, across the North (Newcastle, Hull), they have destroyed in a year a lot of the municipal bases they built up over two decades. The longer they remain part of the coalition, they worse it will get for them.

Significantly, the Greens came very close to out-polling the Tories and becoming the city’s third biggest party, although without coming close to taking any more seats. In fact, it’s difficult to see how they can break out of their Central ward ghetto, except maybe by having a go at Broomhill in the next few years. Still, the point should be made that as many people in the city voted for a minor party with one Westminster MP as for the main governing party.

Among the smaller parties, the BNP vote collapsed as it could apparently only muster three candidates. Even in Beauchief and Greenhill they could only attract 262 votes in a ward where, not long ago, the party was polling closer to a thousand. Significantly, they had no candidate in Shiregreen and Brightside where they have achieved big votes in the recent past. The fash have never successfully got a foothold in the Steel City, and they look pretty much finished for now, electorally.

So the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) vote actually eclipsed the BNP, largely thanks to another good vote for Maxine Bowler in Burngreave, but other TUSC candidates (in Graves Park and Gleadless Valley) also recovered some of the votes that were squeezed out in the rush to Labour last year, when the general election was held on the same day.

Ultimately it’s perhaps surprising that the LibDems didn’t suffer even more. Perhaps they have a bigger municipal voter base in the Northern middle class than we would hope, or perhaps this indicates a lack of positive enthusiasm for the Labour Party.

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The Strange Death of Nick Clegg

by Liam McNulty

Polls are predicting a Liberal Democrat wipe-out in today’s local elections.  The party is expected to lose Sheffield, where this blog has already covered Paul Scriven’s antics, and several other councils in the north of England.  Is this the beginning of the end for the Liberal Democrats or am I tempting fate?  But if it is, how will this impact on popular consciousness?  Let’s imagine:

Exam papers

University of Cambridge Historical Tripos 2018, Part I, Paper 6:

1. ‘To what extent is Nick Clegg to blame for the destruction of the Liberal tradition in British politics?’

2. ‘Who is the most inept politician in British parliamentary history?  Candidates may answer with reference to one of the following: (a) Nick Clegg.’


‘Penguin has announced a new edition of George Dangerfield’s classic book ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ with a foreword by  former Liberal Democrat leader and expert in the field, Nick Clegg.’

‘Having reinvented himself as an essayist, failed politician Nick Clegg has been commissioned to write a new introductory chapter to Toby Young’s ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.’  It is understood that the two met after Mr. Clegg opened Young’s free school in West London in 2011.’

‘Failed essayist and politician, Nick Clegg, has entered the world of books with a self-penned work of theology.  Entitled ‘Judas Iscariot: A Defense,’ Clegg seeks to rehabilitate the eponymous traitor with access to new archive material.  Mr. Clegg’s agents refused to confirm the value of the advance paid to the former deputy Prime Minister but sources close to the publisher suggest it was in the region of thirty pieces of silver.’


Clegg (vulgar) -noun

1. A superficial and dishonest politician: You are nothing but a Clegg

Clegg -verb

1. To say one thing and do another.

Cleggmania -noun

1.  Short-lived naive hysteria over the supposed merits of a bourgeois politician.

2.  The name given to the events of 5th May, 2011, when a disillusioned pitchfork-wielding mob drove Nick Clegg out of Sheffield.


‘Nick Clegg was accused of yet another U-turn today after it emerged that the Liberal Democrats had launched a new range of Clegg-themed punchbags.  Sources close to the deputy Prime Minister revealed that, just weeks after Mr. Clegg insisted that he ‘was not a punchbag’, the party’s dire financial position had forced them to market the product after an enthusiastic response from focus groups.  Shoppers have been camping outside Liberal Democrat headquarters since the early morning, indicating that demand is likely to be very high.’


Filed under Current Affairs, Satire

Why Social Mobility is Shit (II)

by Anne Archist

The second lesson from our analysis of the concept of social mobility, which is much less significant but worth pointing out in the absence of its acknowledgement by the political mainstream, is that people can move down as well as up the social hierarchy. Not only this, but (in relative terms at least) every movement up is accompanied by (a) movement(s) down, and vice versa. Marx talked about one-sided ways of understanding a concept, and this is certainly something that most commentators are guilty of – social mobility is a good thing, right? After all, it allows people to end up better off than they started in life. But, of course, it also means that people might end up worse off than they started too. For everyone who wins the lottery, someone’s business collapses. For every child of a mining family that became a professor, a child of the bourgeoisie was forced to seek wages by an inheritance squandered by their parents.

Basically, social mobility is generally conceived as a matter of relations – the generally increasing wealth of society as a whole, even when distributed around the population to some extent, is not termed social mobility. People’s position improving relative to their barest physical needs is not, therefore, social mobility (on this normal interpretation of the term, at least). Rather, it is improvement relative to other people in our society that counts as mobility. I leapfrog you, leaving you no better off. Someone else takes my place, sending me crashing back to where I was before. None of this makes any overall improvement – social mobility, conceptually speaking, is a zero-sum game.

If we all move together, we are not moving within the hierarchy but shifting the whole hierarchy onto different ground, still intact. John MacLean said “Rise with your class, not out of it” – the working class can improve their position as a class, and can eventually abolish the very social relations that make them the working class. This should be their focus, rather than the language of social mobility that implores workers to leave their class behind them and enter the ranks of small capital or the self-employed.

It’s interesting also to reflect on the way that social mobility is measured and conceptualised by the right. This is a methodological issue that threatens to slip into the analysis of those on the left, as methodologies and underlying analytical assumptions have been known to do in the past. Here’s an example: David Willetts is concerned about the effect feminism has had on social mobility. His reasoning is that many women have been able to take opportunities that would otherwise gone to men and improved their social positions. Of course, the reason that Willetts sees this as a threat to social mobility is that he conceives of the family unit as a single, indivisible economic entity, represented largely by the ‘male breadwinner’.

If Willetts conceived of social mobility on an individual level, the improvements in women’s social mobility would neutralise the damage done to men’s social mobility, as we’ve already seen. The reason that women pose a problem in this way of looking at things is that they themselves aren’t seen as worthy of assessing individually for their own social standing. Their social standing is, largely, that of their husband. Families are becoming less socially mobile due to the fact that generally families now consist of either two people who are well off and well educated or two people who are not particularly economically prosperous and averagely educated at best.

This means that there is increasing polarisation between family units in terms of, say, education, when you average out between the husband and wife. Before you could have relied upon well-educated men marrying poorly-educated women in order to create a tendency towards the mean. It also means that families are less likely to change dramatically in terms of income and so on – if the family’s income depends almost entirely on the man’s income, then the loss of his job will affect them much more than if his income only makes up half or a third of the income.

None of this has anything to do with individual people’s chances in life, their incomes or levels of education, their class membership, or whatever. It has to do with the way that these people come together into family units, and that is what Willetts is blind to; by taking the basic economic unit to be the male-headed family, he obscures inequalities within families and the social mobility of women (other than single women, perhaps, who may appear in his metrics as a kind of abberation). Willetts also seems to confuse inequality in household income with lack of social mobility, though it’s unclear as to what exactly his reasoning is from the way he’s been quoted in the press.

Why, then, do some on the left promote this apparently right-wing goal? Arguments over what will best promote social mobility abound, claims that the cuts to education will harm social mobility come even from hardline SWPers and so forth. It makes perfect sense that David Willetts should be concerned with social mobility – presumably he thinks there’s some link between meritocracy and social mobility (which, of course, isn’t logically the case since people’s position could change due to luck, as when workers win lottery jackpots), and that meritocracy is good.

But surely the left should be making the more politically explosive points against this agenda? When tories talk about social mobility they’re talking merely about: shuffling around who’s rich and who’s poor, not eliminating poverty; increasing competition for good educational opportunities, not improving educational opportunities for all; pitting ordinary working people against each other, not building cooperation and solidarity among them.

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