What was most notable about the recent Gove-Balls clash over the access of children from poorer households to Oxbridge was not that Gove got his numbers right. Would it really make much difference if 145 rather than 45 of those receiving free school meals had found their way to the pinnacle of our university system? Neither wanted to engage with the real issue of limited social mobility, perhaps because neither of them have any idea of how this issue could be addressed. More likely they do know (for just the most recent survey of what’s wrong and what needs to be done, see the Marmot Report) but they are also aware that there’s no political will to see the problem addressed.
Where once parties argued over the ownership of industry or the status of trade union rights or the appropriate forms and levels of taxation, increasingly the argument has been one about who can best manage the nation’s publicly-provided welfare. And where once this argument was about differing forms of welfare (state versus market, public versus private), it is now increasingly one about who can best manage the sorts of institutions about which the two (or three) main political parties are largely agreed. Conservatives don’t want to abolish the NHS. Labour will not attack private schools. If there is some sort of political consensus here (temporally, at least, a post-Thatcherite consensus), it does not look much like the agreement that some suppose to have held in the ‘Golden Age of Welfare’ (from the end of the war until the early 1970s). The newer consensus is a rather downbeat affair which seeks to squeeze the maximum output from a very finite pot of resources in the face of escalating social needs (above all, though not exclusively, those generated by an ageing society). The claim to govern is a claim to manage the welfare state efficiently. Both major parties insist upon an interest in excellence, choice and social mobility but both know that probably the best they can hope for is that levels of service should be ‘adequate’ and that the least advantaged should share in some way in the privileges that continue to accumulate for those above them.
Whoever wins the election, there will be tough choices to face in social policy. Welfare needs have a built-in ratchet effect - a powerful combination of ageing populations, new medical technologies and more unstable patterns of family formation. This challenge is exacerbated by those changes that bring on less secure economic lives, with interrupted working careers and a declining social wage (and pension entitlements). Meeting this challenge in a context of increased public indebtedness plus high levels of household debt and growing social needs is not easy. Perhaps (as those who face the prospect of defeat are sometimes heard consolingly to say), it’s a good election to lose.
Professor Chris Pierson