The Conservatives must become the champions of social mobility

Daily Telegraph: The Conservative Party has a secret. This secret has lain well-hidden since the Tories’ general election victory, not least because of Labour’s current self-harm. The secret is that the Conservatives still aren’t very popular. 

For all the jubilation, for all the crowing at those who doubted the Conservative election campaign, some who ran that campaign (and did the crowing) privately admit that some criticism was justified. The party gained ground but did not make real breakthroughs with new voters, especially the young, the poor and the northern. The Conservatives got 10.7 million votes in 2010 and 11.3 million votes this year. Their share of vote crept from 36.1 per cent to 36.9. That surprise Commons majority says more about Labour failure than Conservative success.

Given that Labour is busily reinforcing that failure, is the Tory problem really a problem? Why not simply sit back and wait for the other side to lose again?

That’s not what winners do. Winners never let up. England are having the better of the current Ashes Test, but remember Lord's? Having declared on 566 in the first innings, Australia could have coasted. Instead, they humiliated England and won by 400 runs. That’s the Aussie way: when you have your boot on the other bloke’s throat, press harder.

In politics, winners never stop trying to take the other bloke’s votes, capture his territory, steal his ideas. Tories who really want to win know that no matter how shambolic Labour looks today, they cannot assume the shambles will persist until 2020. As Labour stumbles to the Left, the Tories must advance into the centre ground.

George Osborne leads that charge. That’s unsurprising, given he has a personal interest in the next election that David Cameron lacks. The Chancellor has become the most powerful vacuum-cleaner in British politics, relentlessly hoovering up new ideas and talent.

Empowering towns and cities in the north, building many more houses in the south – these are Mr Osborne’s answers to those who still see the Tories as the party of wealthy southern home owners.

To answer those who still think the Tories heartless, Iain Duncan Smith and his compassionate Conservative agenda on welfare, once scorned by the Treasury, are now embraced. Boris Johnson’s living wage appeal to the working poor has been similarly appropriated, part of an attempt to foster a blue-collar Conservatism that rewards and absorbs all those who believe in what Franklin D Roosevelt – who gave America its minimum wage in 1938 – called “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”.

Yet the Osborne New Deal is compromised. Cuts in tax credits leave millions of young low-wage families worse off, even as a cut in inheritance tax hands £1 billion a year to middle-aged middle-class households. If Labour ever gets its act together, it will not struggle to dismantle Tory claims to speak for those at the bottom, not the top.

To occupy the centre permanently and take more Labour votes, Mr Osborne needs to suck in more ideas. Next on his list should be social mobility, and its sad decline.

Research from the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission, overseen by Labour’s Alan Milburn, paints a sorry picture. A bright child from a poor home is less likely to go to a good university and get a good job than the less-clever child of middle-class parents. Unless you believe that educational and professional success are purely a matter of genetic inheritance, that fact should offend you deeply, for it shows that for all our talk about talent rising to the top, for all our belief in fair play, the British game of life is fixed, the deck loaded in favour of those with the right parents.

In the coalition years, the Conservatives curiously allowed Nick Clegg to speak on social mobility and oversee the commission. The party of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit stopped talking about making sure that your talent, not your background, determined your place in life. In Mr Clegg’s absence, the commission and the issue are now orphans, no top-flight Tory seeming keen to talk about the politics and policies required to make Britain a more meritocratic society.

That’s an opportunity Mr Osborne should seize with both hands. Here’s a few ideas to get you started, Chancellor.

Turbo-charge free schools, and rename them “merit schools”. Allow their operators to make a profit if they take in enough kids eligible for free school meals and improve their grades.

Put pressure on independent schools to work with poor pupils from state schools to teach them the “soft skills” – interview technique, personal confidence, networking – that are the real advantage of a private education and which can matter at least as much to a career as exam results.

Shake down big Tory donors (many of them admirably socially-mobile and self-made) to endow a National Merit Fund: any free-school-meals child who gets the grades to enter a Russell Group university gets their fees paid. Require big graduate recruiters to publish data on the socio-economic background of their new hires, then ask Sir Terry Leahy, the council-house kid who made Tesco a winner, to give a very public annual appraisal of which are hiring the best people, and which are just taking the best-coached.

Ask why white working-class boys are now less likely to grow up to become doctors and lawyers than the Asian girls who live on the same street. Demand better answers to that question from the Bar and the GMC. Give Mr Milburn’s commission a home in the Treasury. Give him a peerage and a ministerial job, if he’ll take them. Promote working-class Tories such as Justine Greening and Stephen Crabb.

Listen to Sir John Major, the Brixton boy who won 14 million votes and now finds himself “shocked” at the economic dominance of the children of the “affluent middle class”.

Make the Conservatives the party of meritocracy and make Britain a place where what determines how far you rise is your talent and your effort, not those of your parents. It may not guarantee victory at the next election, but it won’t hurt. And it would definitely be the right thing to do.

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