28 August 2017

Social mobility should be at the heart of modern Conservatism

By Paul Masterton

On paper, I’m the archetypal Tory. Born and bred in Edinburgh, I attended private school before heading off to Dundee University and spending a decade as a solicitor. Just over two years after joining the Conservative Party, with a nice house in a leafy suburb, I was elected to Westminster. How did that happen?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself since election day, but the answer is pretty simple: my parents.

My Grandpa on my dad’s side was from one of the most deprived areas of Leith, and my mum grew up in a council tower block in Muirhouse. My Nana now lives in an ex-council flat across the road from where those tower blocks still stand (she was one of the last people in Scotland to benefit from the now-cancelled Right to Buy).

Through grit and sacrifice, my grandparents provided my parents with a better future. In turn, my parents fought, struggled and did their best for me. They forewent holidays, new cars, and other nice things to spend every penny they could pull together on giving me the best start in life they could manage. I was the first, and still the only, member of my extended family to make it to University.

I am a product of social mobility, and I hope I can do for my two children what my parents did for me. But too many parents across the UK often feel like their sacrifices aren’t making a difference, and that “doing the right thing” isn’t getting them anywhere.

Conservatism is, or should be, about creating the safest and most prosperous community possible. It is about putting in place the mechanisms to give everyone a chance to succeed, to enable them to make their own way through life fully utilising their talents, interests and efforts. That means helping them to own their own home, buy shares, and enjoy just reward for their hard work.

Unambitious, nervy government that focuses on a narrow numbers game just won’t cut it. We need an ambitious social justice programme not only because it is an economic necessity, but because it is the right thing to do.

Too many people feel the deck is stacked against them, that Government is not on their side, and that the ladder of opportunity runs out of rungs too quickly. It is that pervasive sense of unfairness that threatens social cohesion, and has left people lurching to populists on the Left and the Right, in search of scapegoats and easy answers.

People are more than numbers on a spreadsheet or plots on a graph. A policy’s effectiveness depends on how people feel their lives are going on the ground.

It’s time for the Conservative Party to turn Life Chances agendas and Tackling Burning Injustices speeches into more than rhetoric. The Prime Minister identified the barriers that stand in the way of people fulfilling their potential – because of their age, family circumstance, race, disability, sexuality, their postcode, or how much their parents earn.

But there is a danger that among the hand wringing and soul searching, and with Parliament consumed by Brexit, those issues will not get the time they need.

Brexit was an anguished cry from those who felt forgotten and dispossessed. There is an understated, and in many quarters frighteningly unconsidered, danger that we leave the EU only for those Brexit voters to find out that nothing has changed. That those same issues remain as severe and entrenched as they were before. And not getting our departure right could even make things worse.

A Government that delivers Brexit but doesn’t deliver the social reform to address the issues which resulted in the vote to Leave is a Government which shouldn’t expect to be returned at the next time of asking.

Faced with a re-invigorated Labour Party, and finding his party struggling for a narrative or clear offer to the people, then Scottish Conservative MP Noel Skelton asked in his 1923 “Constructive Conservatism” essays: “Has the Conservative Party the imagination, the will, the courage to seize the opportunity and do an architect’s work?”

This summer is an opportunity for Conservatives to catch their breath and recharge their batteries. But it is also time to start draughting – to knuckle down and reassess how the Party fits into this new landscape and what this Government wants to achieve.

A good start would be for the Party to see the world as it is, not as it wishes it to be. Most people don’t care about ideology – they want a home, a decent job and a safe environment to raise their kids in. They also want to see the institutions they cherish and on which they rely (whether that’s the NHS, the BBC, their local library or their private sector multi-national employer) provide a good, effective service that is flexible and moves with the times.

For example, more of the population now work atypical hours, making it harder for them to keep a job and have access to essential public services. This has consequences – if you don’t have a network to fall back on to, to pick your kids up from school for example, you are more likely to drop out the job market. If you struggle to get a doctor’s appointment you’re less likely to seek early assistance for a medical problem. Public services need to adapt to reflect the people they serve.

Social exclusion is one of the great ills of our age, not just in relation to the elderly. Identifying and strengthening weak social networks must be a priority. We cannot expect individuals to be upwardly mobile if they are unable to access or even hear about opportunities, or have no ability to draw on the support of their wider family or community.

Crucial too, is encouraging and cultivating an environment of aspiration and ambition in which children can be confident in themselves and their goals, and given the tools to succeed.

Debates about tuition fees are important but miss the point. By the time it comes to filling in the Ucas form, the prospects for most kids have long since been determined. The driver of social mobility is the crucial early years where the attainment gap takes root, and those must be the unremitting focus of government at Holyrood and Westminster.

Before increasing hours for three- and four-year-olds (which most parents cannot access anyway), provision of the basic hourly entitlement should be extended to all two-year-olds and the most vulnerable one-year-olds.

Early years education and child care needs to have real purpose and intent – developing literacy, numeracy, social skills, and helping to narrow the divide that is ingrained by the time our kids walk through the primary school gates. Funding must be made available to provide and re-train a highly skilled, professional workforce.

And vocational education must again be given equal kudos and precedence, so pupils are not funnelled through to university education as a default. Kids learn differently, so we need to allow them to be taught differently. They have different skill sets, so we need an education system that enables all talents to be nurtured and developed. They have different aspirations and goals, so we need to ensure we have guidance and routes in place to help every child get to where they want to be.

The Conservatives likes to consider ourselves the party of family values – it’s time we became a party that values families. A strategy for strengthening families (in all their wonderful varieties) and reducing family breakdown is needed. Stronger families are essential for social mobility, as supportive and nurturing family relationships boost outcomes.

Social mobility isn’t about wanting your children to follow in your footsteps. It’s wanting them to walk alongside you, hand in hand. And then, when the day comes when you can walk no further, for your children to go further than you ever dreamed possible.

This most basic of aspirations should not depend on wealth or social standing, but be a right we can all expect to enjoy. It’s time for this Government to start clearing the path.

Paul Masterton is the Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire