Why don’t we just… back more positive discrimination?

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Our successes in life are down to our own merits – or at least that’s what we like to think. Talent always rises to the top, so we’re told. If only that were true. It isn’t.

We live in a country where the greatest determining factor of where you end up in life is your father’s profession. Sons and daughters of lawyers and doctors become lawyers and doctors.

For some years now, the Labour Party has operated gender-based positive discrimination in the selection of parliamentary candidates. Forty-three per cent of Labour MPs are now women, compared with just 16 per cent following the 1992 election. In total, 29 per cent of all MPs are female, compared to 9 per cent in 1992.

The increase in female MPs, and at a slower pace ethnic minority MPs, masks the ongoing dominance of Parliament by the upper classes. A third of MPs went to fee-paying private schools (the national average is 7 per cent) and a quarter went to Oxbridge. Parliament is dominated by people with backgrounds in finance, law and public affairs. Only 3 per cent of MPs have a background in manual work.

This dominance of Parliament by those from privileged backgrounds is replicated across the judiciary, the civil service, media and business. Seventy-one per cent of senior judges went to private school, as did over half of Whitehall permanent secretaries and the top 100 most influential people in the media. This dominance also spreads into the arts. Writers like Jimmy McGovern complain about a lack of young genuinely working class actors, not because they lack the aspiration to get into performing arts but because they can’t afford the fees.

The impact on the psyche of the individual and our collective culture is intense. The economic impact of people from low income and modest backgrounds not achieving their potential is huge. The impact on our political debates is profound. A society run by people who have tended to find it easy to get on in life is less likely to understand the need to change things. So limited social mobility affects the individual,
yes, but it is also bad for the country
as a whole.

This dominance in our society is self-perpetuating, as better-off parents hoard opportunities for their children, ensuring they get the best education and using contacts to boost career opportunities. Addressing social mobility will require major shifts in education, the labour market and attitudes across society.

The impact of limited social mobility in the here and now is severe. If the Labour Party can positively discriminate in favour of women and the government can call on business to do more to ensure women are better represented at boardroom level, then why not positively discriminate in favour of people from non-privileged backgrounds? Political parties could do this when selecting candidates, redbrick universities through admissions processes, employers when shortlisting and the BBC when commissioning television programmes.

This isn’t about the politics of envy. This is about fairness and opportunity. It is about what’s best for our country. Radical action needs to be taken to
ensure those with talent genuinely rise
to the top.

Graham Whitham writes for Greater Manchester Poverty Action  (www.gmpovertyaction.org)

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