Labour’s Radical Meritocracy

Merit is a value system that recognises and rewards individual qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, and effort. It is a principle that underpins a fair and equitable society by rewarding individuals based on their demonstrated abilities, qualifications, and contributions, rather than on factors such as wealth, social class, or family connections. In a merit-based system, appointments, promotions, and rewards are determined based on job-related suitability, intelligence, knowledge, skills, abilities, and qualifications. A meritocracy promotes social mobility by providing equal opportunities for individuals to rise through the ranks of society based on their personal abilities and efforts. As such, merit is often associated with the idea of fairness, justice, and the potential for individuals to shape their destinies.

Given this definition, then, why are we not hearing more from The Labour Party on how the recognition of merit, and its equitable distribution across society, will form a radical and defining principle of Keir Starmer’s mission in government? Tony Blair and the New Labour government spoke a lot about merit because as a concept it cut through to more conservative voters, while keeping more progressive voters engaged in a redistribution project. Who doesn’t want to enhance their opportunities for social mobility, and take advantage of the benefits that invention, creativity and hard work have to offer to secure a better life for themselves? Merit is like freedom, security, and self-determination. We all know we want them, but the challenge is how we get them, and how the benefits are spread fairly through society.

I suppose the principal problem, is that while merit is a widely used and agreed upon term, the social policies that are required to ensure that we have a meritocratic society, are much harder to agree on.

The Labour Social Justice Commission was established by the Labour Party in the early 1990s to explore and propose policies related to social justice. The commission, set up by John Smith in 1992, and was charged with the idea of bringing new ideas and policy proposals on social justice issues to the Labour Party. The commission focused on issues of social justice, which encompassed a wide range of concerns related to fairness, equality, and opportunity. The commission reviewed existing policies and made recommendations for new policies that would promote social justice. The commission’s work contributed to shaping the Labour Party’s agenda on social justice and influenced policy discussions within the party.

In 2019, the Labour Party emphasise social justice in their plans for a forthcoming government, and said that they intended to a new Social Justice Commission if they were able to form a government. The aim was to develop a new approach to social mobility that would focus on “giving every child the chance to flourish, not just a ‘lucky few’.” Labour argued that the concept of social mobility has given credibility to the idea that “only a few talented or lucky people deserve to escape the disadvantage they were born into”.

Labour said they would:

  • Replace social mobility with social justice as a measure of government policy and a stated aim of government policies;
  • Grant the new Social Justice Commission wide-ranging statutory powers and genuine independence to hold the next Labour government – and all future governments – to account for improving social justice;
  • Empower the new Social Justice commission to give advice to Ministers on policies that could improve social justice, with such advice to be made public;
  • Enable the new Social Justice Commission to carry out social justice impact assessment on government policy (green papers, white papers, legislation) to assess the impact that each aspect of government policy will have on social justice;
  • Create a new Minister for Social Justice, working across government departments to drive the social justice agenda across all aspects of Government.

In 2022, the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission updated its brief, stating:

“The Social Mobility Commission exists to create a United Kingdom where an individual’s future isn’t determined by the circumstances of their birth. We promote meaningful paths of opportunity for those in positions of disadvantage, so that everyone has a decent chance of a better future. We are an independent advisory body, currently sponsored by the Cabinet Office. Prior to April 2021, the Commission was sponsored by the Department for Education. The Commission was established by the Child Poverty Act 2010 and was previously referred to as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. It is operated in accordance with the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.”

Before going on to say:

“In our view, too many interventions have focused on getting people to leave the place where they grew up, acquire brilliant academic credentials, and gain entry into an elite professional occupation. There is nothing wrong with this view of social mobility, but it is not enough. We want to move away from a narrow focus on ‘long’ upward mobility, moving a few from the ‘bottom’ into the ‘top’, to a broader view of different kinds of social mobility, sometimes over shorter distances, for a greater number of people. This means getting the whole sector thinking differently and collecting and using data differently. It means being clearer about the instances where mobility is working well and being clearer about the various factors which help to make this happen. And it means being clearer about obstacles which hold people back and how they might be removed.”

The question is, how do we achieve this, what are the best ways to implement these policies, and what do we need to clear away to ensure that this process works more efficiently? Much of the focus on social mobility in the UK has been focussed on Levelling Up, the UK Government’s policy of Levelling Up is a political initiative aimed at reducing economic imbalances and promoting social and economic opportunity across different regions and social groups in the United Kingdom.

The concept of Levelling Up was first articulated in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto. It has since been continued by both Boris Johnson’s and Rishi Sunak’s governments. The policy aims to address the disparities and inequalities between different areas and social groups in the UK, primarily focusing on economic imbalances. The policy seeks to reduce these imbalances without negatively impacting prosperous areas, such as the South East of England. The UK government has allocated significant funding to support the Levelling Up agenda. The flagship Levelling Up Fund, worth £4.8 billion, backs projects across the UK to help communities level up. The government has outlined various metrics to measure the success of the Levelling Up policy, including productivity, employment, vacancy rates, lack of skills, and transport links. The Levelling Up White Paper set out twelve UK-wide missions to anchor the agenda to 2030, alongside specific policy interventions. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, led by Levelling Up Secretary of State Michael Gove, is responsible for the delivery of the policy agenda.

Critics argue that the policy does not adequately address the cuts in local council funding that have happened since 2008, and that it may not effectively address the root causes of inequality.in 2022 Lisa Nandy, Labour’s Levelling Up spokesperson, accused the government of abandoning their commitment to Levelling Up, saying the “Tories’ commitment to levelling up is dead,” and that Labour would be the true guardians of levelling up and social mobility, by working with local partners to “build a new Britain that delivers security, prosperity and respect across the country.” When Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, the policy was discussed extensively by government ministers, in mid-2023, the policy is now seldom mentioned.

This raises the question, what are the opportunities for Labour to take the initiative on levelling up, social mobility and the promotion of a meretricious society? The financial situation that the country is facing suggests that there will be little room for structural reform that costs significant amounts of money and investment. A future Labour government would be limited in its scope for taxing and spending because growth in the economy is so poor. What, then, are the measures that Labour can take that will enhance and promote social mobility and levelling up based on merit and a positive work ethic? If Labour was more direct in its attacks on certain forms of privilege and assumed incumbency, would they win over the conservatives that they need to form a majority?

Looking at the pros and cons of using merit as a defining function in social policy, it should be possible for Labour to argue that they will introduce changes to the social structure of the UK to enhance productive capacity and to support merit-based innovation. The argument would suggest that when implemented effectively, levelling up, social mobility and a meritocracy can lead to a more efficient allocation of resources by matching individuals to roles based on their skills and abilities. Similarly, a meritocracy is often seen as a more fair and equitable system, since it rewards individuals based on their skills and abilities, rather than on their wealth, social class, or family connections. Labour can easily argue that merit-based systems can increase motivation, as individuals know that their hard work and abilities can lead to success. And Labour can point to how meritocratic policies can promote social mobility, as it provides opportunities for talented individuals from all backgrounds to succeed.

Labour would have to counter some misconceptions and potential conflations that would be thrown at them. For example, defining and measuring ‘merit’ can be challenging. Merit is often measured through qualifications, skills, or performance on tests, which may not capture all aspects of an individual’s abilities or potential. Similarly, while meritocracy aims to promote fairness and equality, it can also lead to inequality if some individuals have more opportunities to develop and demonstrate their ‘merit’ due to their socioeconomic background. Labour would also have to address the fear that meritocracies often reward only certain types of skills and abilities, which may lead to a narrow definition of success.

The example is the financial services sector is salient. The UK financial industry is centred in London, and is not distributed in a way that benefits people living across the whole of the UK. It is said to be a global player in international finance, but such a super-concentration and focus on financial speculation in one place negatively impacts other parts of the economy. Who doesn’t want to spoil the goose that lays the golden eggs? A lesson from 2008 that we learnt at our peril. The focus on such limited skills and economic models also undervalues other important qualities such as creativity, empathy, and teamwork. Merit-based systems can create a high-pressure environment that leads to stress and other mental health issues, leading to burn-out and a brain-drain when high-merit individuals gain undue prominence in an organisation. This is bad for accountability, bad for pragmatic business capacity building, and does little to ensure that the recognition of merit is distributed across an organisation or a country.

The success of a meritocratic system depends greatly on how it’s implemented. It should be designed and managed in a way that truly recognises and rewards merit, while also considering the diverse skills and abilities of individuals. The question is, what kind of social policies would we need to implement that would address many of the long-term structural barriers to the fair distribution of reward, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to develop and demonstrate their merit? What holds people from feeling they have progressed based on their self-assumed merit, then, is privilege and incumbency? Two factors that are baked into the British social system, which Labour could deal with by implementing anti-democratic and anticompetitive policies.

Meritocracy and privilege are two concepts that are often discussed in relation to social and economic mobility. The key differences between the two are:

Meritocracy

  • Meritocracy is a system where people are selected for positions based on their individual abilities and achievements.
  • The idea behind meritocracy is that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of their social background or other factors.
  • Meritocracy is often associated with the idea of a “level playing field” where everyone has an equal chance to succeed based on their merits.
  • However, critics argue that meritocracy is often used as a smokescreen for inherited privilege, and that it can actually perpetuate existing inequalities by favouring those who are already privileged.

Privilege

  • Privilege refers to the advantages that some people have over others due to their social background, race, gender, or other factors.
  • Privilege can manifest in many ways, such as access to education, healthcare, and job opportunities.
  • Those who are privileged often have an easier time achieving success and advancing in their careers, regardless of their individual abilities or achievements.
  • Critics argue that privilege is often invisible to those who have it, and that it can be difficult to address because it is deeply ingrained in society.

Labour would need to ensure that all social systems in the UK are designed to promote the positive benefits of meritocracy. This would involve implementing systems where people are selected based on their individual abilities and achievements, rather than those that relate to the advantages that some people have over others due to their social background or other factors. While meritocracy is often seen as a way to promote social and economic mobility, critics argue that it can actually perpetuate existing inequalities by favouring those who are already privileged. This can be dealt with by giving a stronger voice to those who do not presently occupy a privileged space in society, and limiting those that do.

This is where electoral reform is an essential first step in challenging the discourse of privilege. The House of Lords has to be abolished and replaced by an elected chamber that is representative of the nations of the UK. Similarly, the electoral system of the UK needs to be changed, both locally and nationally, so that it is more proportionate. No more first-past-the-post, which promoted incumbency, and doesn’t allow for innovation in representation or policy development. MPs should also be term-limited, so there is a churn that brings new people in with different experiences and perspectives.

Second, there needs to be radical reform of the Competition and Markets regulation to break up the consolidated corporations, with active regulation that promotes competitive practice and punishes anticompetitive practices. Businesses should not be afraid of competition, but too often there is excessive consolidation of the market around a few players. They always argue that scale and efficiency bring benefits to consumers, but this has not been the case during cost-of-living-crisis, where costs have automatically been passed onto consumers. If companies want to increase profits they should be focussed on innovation and enhanced service delivery, not price gouging, rentiering, and assuming that they will get hand outs from the government if times get tough.

This will have a knock-on effect in the way companies are financially regulated, with many companies failing because they are stacked-up with debt and used for financial speculation. If companies can’t deploy dubious tax-avoidance strategies, then the rest of us may feel that we can start and build our own businesses because we are getting a fair crack of the whip! When large multinational corporations pay little or no tax, the feeling that the system is rigged takes hold, and we become risk averse.

In simple terms, merit in the context of social policy can be defined as a value system that recognises and rewards qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, and effort. It is a system in which individuals are rewarded based on their demonstrated abilities and qualifications, rather than on factors such as wealth, social class, or family connections. Merit is deeply embedded in the narratives of nation-states and is often associated with the idea of the American Dream or Singapore’s rise as a Global City. In a merit-based system, appointments and placements are made based on job-related suitability, intelligence, knowledge, skills, abilities, and qualifications. The most common definition of meritocracy conceptualises merit in terms of tested competency and ability. Overall, merit in the context of social policy refers to the recognition and reward of individual abilities and efforts, with the aim of promoting fairness, justice, and social mobility.

New Labour, for example, used merit as a principle for the development of social policy in the following ways:

  • Education: New Labour emphasised the importance of education as a means of promoting social mobility and meritocracy. They introduced policies such as the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies and the Education Maintenance Allowance to improve access to education and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Welfare Reform: New Labour introduced welfare reforms that aimed to encourage work and reduce dependency on state benefits. They introduced the Working Families Tax Credit and the New Deal for Lone Parents to support individuals in finding employment and advancing based on their abilities and efforts.
  • Health Care: New Labour introduced policies to improve access to healthcare and reduce health inequalities. They invested in the National Health Service and introduced policies such as the Smoking Ban and the Healthy Schools Programme to promote healthy lifestyles and reduce health disparities.
  • Social Inclusion: New Labour aimed to promote social inclusion and reduce social exclusion through policies such as Sure Start and the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. These policies aimed to improve access to resources and opportunities for individuals and communities facing disadvantage.

Overall, New Labour used merit as a principle for the development of social policy by promoting equal opportunities, supporting individuals based on their abilities and efforts, and addressing social inequalities.

New Labour’s social policies aimed to create a system where individuals had equal opportunities to succeed, and advance based on their abilities and efforts. There is nothing more inhibiting to risk taking than the potential for absolute failure. Some are arguing that a Universal Basic Income would kick-start innovation because it would guarantee social security, A UBI would allow more people to retrain, to access education, and would support people as they seek employment in different sectors. UBI would be a social mobility measure that reduces social inequality by emphasising the importance of education, work, and individual effort.

New Labour may have sought to promote social mobility and create a society where success and status are determined by merit, but they stuck largely to the Tory model of home ownership and the feeling of wealth that comes from owning properties and assets. The principal challenge is now the imbalance in the housing market. Home ownership is now leaving the middle-class behind, and only the super wealthy can find affordable housing. As Michale Goodier reports in The Guardian

“It’s little surprise that as a result [of house price increases], the number of adults living in their family home in England and Wales has risen by 700,000 since 2011 – with about 30% of 25- to 29-year-olds now living with their parents. The trend has meant that those who move out are also far more likely to be paying their salaries to landlords; the number of households renting has more than doubled since 2001. Unfortunately, in much of the country, renting is also becoming an unaffordable option.”

The dysfunctional British housing market is the primary limitation on social mobility in the UK, and Labour is going to have to employ every ounce of muscle it can find in order to challenge the vested interests that are clamouring for greater protections for those who have already benefited from the unearned wealth that comes from sitting on assets and expecting the value to keep increasing.

The system of asset-protection that we have now is fundamentally anticompetitive, and is damaging the capacity of the economy to produce risk-taking entrepreneurs. As the government’s own Social Mobility Commission stated earlier, our focus is too much on the long-ladder, and not enough attention is given to creating a broad-ladder. Biden calls this building-out from the middle, and is a rejection of trickle-down economics. Unfortunately, the regressive forces that want to maintain hierarchy and privilege in the UK are calling for an end to Inheritance Taxes, which would further entrench privilege and reduce merit-based social mobility.

Two things need to be done to blunt the attacks of the vested interests. First, call out these vested interests, and ask them why they are afraid of competition. There should be no automatic assumption that those who occupy positions of power and authority are any better than those who do not. Indeed, many ‘lower ranking’ people may be more effective at dealing with business challenges because they have experience and common sense. Employment reforms that ensure that workplace democracy is meaningful would go a long way to countering the excesses and short-term practices of the executive management class. Having the right background and contacts does not determine if you are inventive, creative, and good at your job.

The second way to counter the claim that Labour is anti-business, would be to set up a sovereign wealth fund with the specific purpose of promoting social mobility and merit-based opportunity. In the UK, it is easy to be rich and lazy, while it is incredibly tough to be poor and hard-working. Getting people off the back-foot, so they can take risks, and innovate, will surely improve the UK’s productive capacity overall. If there is a fund that is used to raise the standard of educational opportunities, and invest in our meritocracy, then perhaps we can challenge the assumptions and privileges that are causing so many problems, where the now common complaint is that nothing works. We can’t spend our way out of this, we have to think our way out of it, and that will require the contribution and ingenuity of everyone, not just a narrow few who already occupy privileged positions.

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