Another Polly Toynbee clanger: Broken Class

Polly Toynbee contradicts both conventional wisdom and herself in an effort to relaunch a class war.

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The flag of the Polly Toynbee brigade
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Anthony Masters
On 12 September 2011 15:28

With nine out of every ten Members of Parliament holding a degree, issues of class and social mobility have bubbled to the surface of political discussion.

To add to this debate, Polly Toynbee (for it is she), political commentator at The Guardian, made a two-part documentary for BBC Radio 4 entitled 'The Class Ceiling'. Toynbee's central thesis is that social mobility in Britain has declined and that this decline is due to class-based barriers, whilst the current "convenient myth" is that Britain is a classless society.

The main problem is that class is such a nebulous concept, with columnist Peter York stating "knowledge of class has declined whilst inequality has increased". Toynbee has to glide between various proxies, including occupation, wealth and income, even though the fact that Toynbee herself recognises that "class is not money", demonstrates this point.

However, it cannot be that income is an adequate substitute for class, as individuals are transient between income brackets. As American economist Thomas Sowell points out in Economic Facts and Fallacies, "[a] study of some thousand numbers of people in the bottom 10 percent of incomes in a given year, two thirds of them had raised out of that income bracket a short six years later".

Social mobility is usually defined as the ability of children from low-income families, broadly "working class", to rise above the economic condition of their parents. These statistics do not differentiate between external barriers and internal impediments to success. Lee Elliot Major, Research Director at the Sutton Trust, states "education inequality and income inequality feed off each other", as parents use their economic position to ensure their child does well at school. 

This may all be in vain though, as sociologist Peter Saunders declares that "ability is still the biggest factor" determining the economic success of an individual child.

Toynbee moves onto higher education, with the mass expansion of recent years not increasing social mobility as many thought it would. This is due to the devaluation of degrees that follows moving from a system of 10 percent participation to one nearing 50 percent of all young people going to university, leading to what David Davis MP terms "creeping credentialism", with jobs requiring degrees where they previously had not. As David Willets MP, now Universities Minister succinctly puts it, "well-intentioned policies don't always have the desired effect".

To support her central claim, she states that from 2003 to 2008, even though Britain's GDP grew by 11 percent, the "bottom 50 percent of earners stagnated" over the same period, and that "wealth has been sucked up to the top", consequences of the firm class system.

However, the bottom 50 percent of earners in 2003 will not be the same people as the bottom 50 percent in 2008, as there were 1.3 million more people in employment in 2008 than there were in 2003.

Toynbee is quoting the Resolution Foundation, which has claimed that real median income has not grown between 2003 and 2008, using the RPI measure of inflation. According to official statistics, median income went from £15,800 to £18,500 in those five years, a nominal increase of 17.1 percent.

The extent to which they overestimate inflation is the amount they underestimate real growth in incomes, and this problem is compounded when looking at macroeconomic data over many years. It is true that the distribution of wealth has moved towards the rich over the past three decades, but that is not equivalent to claiming that wealth has been moved from the poor to the rich. 

It is simply that newly created wealth is not being distributed amongst all people evenly. This trend can be observed in every developed nation, suggesting that it has a global cause, rather than being a unique product of the British class system.

Lastly, Toynbee says that to have "true social mobility, for every person that goes up, another must come down". 

Though I sincerely doubt that the citadels of wealth operate like a nightclub, this claim actually contradicts the opening statement of the documentary, namely that "blue-collar middle class jobs" increased in the post-war period, whilst manual labour jobs decreased from two-thirds to one-third of the workforce. 

This shows that classes, as broadly defined as they are, can change in their composition of society.

Social mobility is the underpinning of a meritocratic society, where your background does not define you, only your achievements do.

In this documentary, Polly Toynbee sets out to show us that class is still significant in our society, but ends up showing how important education is to social mobility. 

Toynbee concludes that income inequality is the real problem, going so far as to support a maximum wage in The Guardian's Q&A session on this subject. This is highly illiberal, and Toynbee should remember that our society is liberal, even if she no longer believes that it is meritocratic.

Anthony Masters is a freelance writer, mathematics postgraduate at the University of Bath and a member of the Bath Conservative Executive. He writes here in a personal capacity

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