Thank you, Keir Starmer, for making class a mainstream issue again

Nick Bent will be joining us at Progressive Britain Conference 2024 on May 11th, at our panel ‘Is Labour serious about class?’. Get your tickets to hear more from him there! 

 

At the risk of being an outlier, I’m going to give a simple, one-word answer to one of the questions posed at this year’s Progressive Britain conference, namely ‘is Labour serious about class?’.  And my answer is “yes!”.  This is absolutely not an endorsement of the Labour Party per se, but on the evidence so far I think it’s hard to dispute the idea that Labour is prioritising social mobility.

Why do I think this? First and foremost, this is because Labour’s own Leader, Keir Starmer, is a person who is not only of proud working class origins himself but also because he is willing to talk about it, and often in a really personal and moving way.

In a country like the UK, with some of the highest levels of income and wealth inequality in the OECD plus a deeply entrenched class system and profound regional imbalances, it’s good that such a senior politician is calling out the things that unfairly hold back working class young people.  All of us who care about breaking down class barriers and boosting social mobility should welcome this, regardless of political preferences.

In his set piece speech at Labour Conference last October, Keir Starmer said this:  “At some point in your life, many people here will have heard a nagging voice inside, saying no this isn’t for you. You don’t belong here. You can’t do that. Working class people certainly hear that voice, trust me. In some ways – it’s the hardest class ceiling, of all.”

It was Keir Starmer’s commitment to ‘shatter the class ceilings’ – and the fact that he used the conference platform to make this promise – that helped me to persuade the editorial team at the Financial Times to publish my think piece about ‘class and the City of London’ a few weeks later; incidentally, a conversation that began at Conservative Conference when a senior FT journalist and I were both speaking at a fringe meeting on social mobility.

Of course, as a registered charity, upReach – the social mobility organisation I am privileged to lead – is strictly neutral about party politics.  But we are not neutral about policy and we are not neutral about the need to acknowledge and address the unjust barriers to success that still face too many working class young people across the UK.  We would welcome stronger signals on these priorities from the leaders of any of the UK’s political parties.

While political rhetoric is important, policy matters even more.  And on the policy agenda, Labour has a credible case to be taking class seriously.  Of the party’s five missions for government, both the ‘economic growth mission’ led by Rachel Reeves and the ‘opportunity mission’ led by Bridget Phillipson have the potential to transform opportunities for working class young people.  Indeed, as I argued in my FT piece, the hard work of raising educational standards, reducing attainment gaps and opening up the labour market is not only the right thing to do but also beneficial to the economy.

Let’s take the City of London and the financial services sector as a test case.  The evidence base about class in the City is highlighted by a recent report from Progress Together (which upReach supports and which is chaired by former Lord Mayor Vincent Keaveny) and The Bridge Group.  ‘Shaping the Economy’ found that “socio-economic background is more likely to impact a person’s route to success in financial services than gender or ethnicity”. Disturbingly, working class women seem to suffer a double disadvantage, and women from ethnic minorities who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds a triple disadvantage.

This is outrageous, yet the commercial rationale for tackling this is just as compelling as the moral argument, both at the level of the firm and for UK plc. Rationally, businesses should hire people with the greatest potential to excel in the job. The labour market is just that, and Microeconomics 101 teaches us that the more choices a consumer has (in this case an employer looking for recruits) and the better the information available, the more efficiently that market will operate.

For people who profess to believe in markets, some business leaders have been strangely slow to cast the net wider and to remove barriers to meritocracy when they are recruiting. Paying travel and accommodation costs for job interviews and work experience, paying the living wage for internships, and using contextual ratings tools – such as upReach’s REALrating – are trivial investments that offer a huge return if firms discover talent in previously unexplored demographics and geographies. A failure to take these basic steps automatically excludes swathes of the population. Firms also need policies to close ‘class gaps’ in pay and promotions for current employees.

upReach and other social mobility charities welcomed the consultation by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about equity, diversity and inclusion in regulated financial services companies, which it states are “regulatory concerns.”  The FCA proposals focus on aspects of diversity that are ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act 2010.  This currently excludes socio-economic background.  It covers gender, race, disability and sexuality and it’s correct that the FCA suggests mandatory strategies, data collection, target setting and progress reporting on these issues for large regulated firms.

upReach agrees that these reforms are not just philosophically correct but also good for business. Indeed, we want the FCA to go further and commit to mandatory reporting on socio-economic background as well.  There are complex overlapping issues to consider when it comes to boosting diversity, yet class cuts across all the other issues. Young people from working class backgrounds still face barriers to success that should not exist.

The work of upReach itself is one solution.  Each year we support 3,000 undergraduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds to secure and sustain top graduate jobs, including at City firms.  Our network of employer partners, some of whom already publish socio-economic data, is vital to our mission. We proudly hold a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for the impact of our programmes.

Conversely, organisations with outdated recruitment practices risk hiring people on the basis of superficial polish and privilege; good for those lucky few, but unfair on the many and ultimately bad for business. In post-Brexit Britain, we must harness all the talents of all our people if this country is to compete and prosper. The business case for social mobility has been reinforced by reports on its commercial benefits from Goldman Sachs and McKinsey; neither firm is shy about championing capitalism. In short, greater meritocracy can lead to greater productivity.

Back in the City of Westminster, we can expect further policy proposals as the General Election approaches, and upReach would like to see every party manifesto full of pledges that will break down barriers for working class young people.  Examples would include a ban on unpaid internships, legislation requiring all large employers – not just financial services firms – to publish data about the socio-economic background of their employees, a more generous system of maintenance grants for students, and a sustainable funding system for the university sector.

When the Institute for Fiscal Studies published its sobering report on social mobility last year, its respected Director, Paul Johnson, tweeted that “choosing your parents is becoming ever more important.”  His dry humour crystallised the challenge of class inequalities in the UK, and the absurdity that this is still a problem in the second decade of the 21st Century.  But it doesn’t have to be this way, and while we cannot choose our parents, we can choose the policies which take class seriously and which will make a positive difference for the next generation.  On this front, Labour has indeed made a strong start, with Keir Starmer leading by example.

 

Nick Bent will be joining us at Progressive Britain Conference 2024 on May 11th, at our panel ‘Is Labour serious about class?’. Get your tickets to hear more from him there!