With some of the worst levels of income inequality and social mobility in the developed world, the UK is a nation where, if you are born poor, you will almost certainly die poor. The desperate need to address this festering problem, which in turn has a whole host of other repercussions for society, ought to be the defining question for today’s generation of politicians, yet few are brave enough to speak out for a direct approach to ending – or at least decreasing – the widening gap between rich and poor. Instead, all we hear are rehashed soundbites and repackaged forms of the liberal consensus designed only to win votes.
The era of short-term politics has, consequently, failed to answer the most urgent questions that affect many of society’s most vulnerable members. The few who do address such issues are frequently either shouted down as ‘loony lefties’ or simply claim the best way forward is to improve the opportunities afforded to those lower down the socio-economic ladder. Unfortunately the answer is not so simple as to merely offer the poorest slightly more than they currently get – instead, the only way to create a truly fair society where all get an equal start and hard work is suitably rewarded is to level the playing field as much as possible, by providing more opportunities at school and ending the ever-increasing economic cleft between those at the bottom and the top.The idea of a modern economy built on endemic precarity – or wage slavery, as some sociologists prefer – has become commonplace over the past three decades as a popular reflection on the realities of British society for most people. Precarity itself is defined as living in a state of constant economic uncertainty, without stability in pay and the consequent chance to plan for the long term. Those living in such conditions often endure extreme emotional stress from worrying about surviving on a day-to-day level, such as ensuring they can put food on their children’s plates alongside pooling together enough cash each month to pay the constantly-rising rent – no wonder so many people on low pay suffer from terrible mental health problems.
This is the appalling reality that confronts a large and growing section of the British population; those living in constant dread of missing a box on the tax form and receiving a harsh sanction to what little financial support they currently receive from the state, they are the people we talk about when discussing meritocracy and social inequality. These are real people who endure real suffering as a direct result of politicians’ actions – this is what we must bear in mind when talking about what to do to make society fairer.
Picture a scene that occurs all too frequently in many comprehensive schools: two students are in the same class, one from a comfortable, well-established and professional family, living a house they own, and another whose parents desperately juggle between several jobs to supplement their main, low-paying careers, living as a result in financial limbo each month, worrying about being able to pay the bills. Say politicians aim to simply offer the same opportunities to the two students, such as providing the chance to go on a school trip, or to enjoy the same level of teaching. The wealthier student is far more likely to do well academically due to the nature of their background; if your parents are able to spend time helping you with work, or at least the environment at home is free from the domestic stress caused by financial difficulties, you can make the most of the opportunities provided to you. If, on the other hand, your parents have no time for you due to their main priorities being employment, if you cannot afford to pay for that extra textbook, and if you live in constant fear of your house being repossessed in the very real possibility of your mum or dad not being able to earn enough that month (a terrifying reality for 93,000 children nationwide), schoolwork is far more difficult to complete to a high level. Even if the school – as it should be doing – provides all the resources required for lessons, the stress of everyday life that results from money problems can hinder academic success and, as happens to so many, prevent social mobility through excellence at school.To ignore the people we are talking about and detach ourselves from the realities of their lives is to fail in our responsibility of looking after the most vulnerable and under-represented in society. As in the case of our hypothetical but startlingly pertinent situation for an ever-growing number of people in society, introducing measures to encourage meritocracy is pointless if such extreme divisions between rich and poor exist in the first place. Therefore, education cannot be a route out of poverty alone – indeed, even if the opportunities for success are open to all, naturally those living in the most difficult conditions will not be able to truly thrive in such a system.
But how do we solve this? As always, identifying the problem is one thing – solving it is another. The only way to create a genuine meritocracy is to make things as equal as possible, and that means combating the enormous income inequality that we see increasing in the UK today, as well as providing all with the same chances for success, both at school and elsewhere. If the starting conditions are levelled and everybody is given many different opportunities to pursue their hopes for the future, it is only natural that the chance to make the most of education will be significantly more achievable for all and society will be nothing but healthier as a result.
The importance of background in determining future success is largely ignored by those who espouse ‘meritocracy’ rather than equality. As a result of this omission, ‘meritocrats’ want ‘meritocracy’ in name only – those who genuinely seek to create a society of hard work and reward are aware that only by tackling the crippling divisions created by gross economic inequality can we build such a future.
Labour has committed to several measures that, while only marginally deal with the problem, are confident steps in the right direction. Increasing the minimum wage, banning zero-hour contracts, acting to close employment agencies that only use cheap foreign workers that undercut locals’ pay, preventing apprenticeships from becoming a way to offer manual labour to employers for wages we would decry as immoral anywhere else, and guaranteeing longer tenancies in rented accommodation – all are the most ambitious attempts to address the utter misery that the liberal economics causes for so many people in the past thirty years.
All of these measures and many others that Labour has adopted to end the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ are, again, steps in the right direction, but hardly ask the wider questions surrounding what we want our economy to be. This fundamental discussion needs to take place, not least to address the concerns of ordinary people, but also to consider what kind of country we want to live in. But this discourse needs to take place alongside far more impactful change than that currently proposed: why talk about a minimum wage when it does not guarantee enough for living expenses? Why not talk about a statutory living wage, at least for employers who can afford it for all their workers? Why sign up to the Conservatives’ attacks on welfare when it helps so many? Instead, why not criticise the demonisation of those who need our help the most when greedy non-doms get off free? Why not show real ambition and restructure the economy so it works for ordinary people, not a couple of wealthy individuals who control big business? Essentially, why not outline a programme to make sure everybody gets their fair share through restructuring pay and ensure that regardless of background or circumstance, anybody can advance with hard work?
An economy that relies on cheap mass labour without a fair distribution of wealth is both morally indefensible and bound to be plagued by countless social ills. The UK’s disgraceful record for social mobility is largely down to the failure of politicians to fully grasp the concept that a gap between the rich and the poor is damaging for society, and so the issue has been left to moulder at the expense of so many.
Economic equality is the key to allowing the brightest and hardest working to go far, and ensuring that the rest do not lose out as a result. It is the declaration of the belief that everybody has a role to play in society and no factors outside one’s command should prohibit progress. That said, addressing the economic imbalance is only part of the process; ending the monopoly of the middle and upper classes over many professions (such as law and politics), as well as mobilising society to change itself for the better are other crucial steps that cannot be summarised in one article alone. If we are serious about creating a meritocratic society, then the first steps we need to take are tearing down the fundamental obstacles to social mobility as well as offering more opportunities at school for advancement (another point that no single opinion piece can fully address). The party that takes the first steps towards dealing with the growing divides in society will, therefore, be the first to begin the creation of a meritocratic Britain.