If London is to live up to its promise, employers need to recruit from outside their comfort zone

CityMetric: The last year of running for mayor of London has been an amazing and humbling experience. I extend my warmest congratulations to the Conservative candidates who made the shortlist; Zac, Syed, Stephen and Andrew have all worked incredibly hard for the Conservative Party over the years, and are dedicated public servants. 

With over 31,000 registered supporters behind me, I’ve come up with a policy list bursting with innovative ideas, and held many dozens of meetings with charities, developers, tech start ups and apprenticeship providers. Now the time has come to really push for a London that is more open, entrepreneurial, inclusive, and, most importantly, socially mobile.

This is the driving force behind the launch of Equal.London: a platform from which we can project this initiative of social change.

My way out of humble beginnings was through entrepreneurship. It was a way of becoming successful without needing an array of top qualifications, or the “polish” and well-travelled CV of my contemporaries. There were zero barriers to entry: I was able to find my way in London, because it was full of opportunity for people with a passion for disruptive ideas that could change the world for the better.

But we cannot build a socially mobile society simply on the backs of budding entrepreneurs and small business owners. If this aspirational society that we all like to talk about is to be a reality for everyone, we must do more to break the glass ceiling to senior positions in top institutions.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s recent research has exposed a big problem in our professions. While only 7 per cent of the population went to a private school, a quite staggering number of people in top positions in society did: 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs, 71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of top civil servants, 53 per cent of senior diplomats and 43 per cent of newspaper columnists.

The reasons for this are multifaceted. Many private schools are in a league of their own when it comes to both attainment and the extracurricular activities that they provide: these things do a great deal to build the character of pupils. It’s also true that, while abolishing the 11+ prevented people being condemned to failure at an early age, one of the consequences was that stagnating attainment in comprehensive schools wasn’t properly addressed until the Gove reforms – and in the meantime social mobility has actually gone backwards.  

There are, however, many other factors that have contributed to this growing elitism – and employers themselves must bear some responsibility. Focusing recruitment efforts predominantly on a narrow pool of Russell Group universities, as many top firms do, has its consequences. Who knew, for example, that the Prime Minister, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, the chief whip, the chairman of the Conservative party and the rail minister all went to one specific Oxford College, Brasenose? It’s unhealthy for so many powerful people to be drawn from such a narrow pool.

Labour productivity is so low partly because the people most appropriate for certain roles aren’t moving to London: the increase in their housing costs means it simply isn’t worth their while.

While official or unofficial assessment criteria (“polish”) continue to shut out those who would otherwise be well-suited to top roles in our big institutions, it is even worse in organisations that don’t have formal assessments or aptitude tests as part of the interview process. That only increases the power of contacts and nepotism. The same applies to informal internships: the old-boys network is alive and well as soon as you stray away from the Times’ Top 100 employers.

As a businessman and entrepreneur, I know people just want the best for their business. They are simply trying to do a good deed and help out by providing opportunities for their friends’ children. But the system it creates is one of a closed shop; we need to work with businesses to broaden the talent pool and broaden exposure for those less well off.

Another prominent issue is that many of these internships are unpaid. That means that only those who can afford to commute into the capital, or are lucky enough to live with their parents there, can viably do them. This feeds through into jobs in later in life: those who’ve managed to get the experience have far more polished CVs than their less privileged counterparts.

Unless the government and top recruiters tackle these challenges, we will continue to fail generations of young people who want to aim for a standard of living higher than that of their parents.

Part of the solution lies in resolving the housing crisis. Labour productivity is so low partly because the people most appropriate for certain roles aren’t moving to London: the increase in their housing costs means it simply isn’t worth their while.

This is why speeding up the planning process and allowing congruous extensions of properties (along with other reforms announced in the government’s Fixing the Foundations report) is so important. Boosting housing supply will go a long way to encourage social mobility, as well as securing economic growth and lowering living costs.

But I also want the government to launch a review into unpaid internships. It should also attach clear conditions to companies recouping the money they pay through the apprenticeship levy, guaranteeing that recruitment for all their positions is truly fair.

This is the promise of London – to be a beacon both for human rights and for greater opportunities for all. While London is going through unprecedented expansion and success, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this if opportunity isn’t spread throughout the capital.

The two worlds of Canary Wharf and the borough of Tower Hamlets that surrounds it embody the challenge in this area. How can we foster links between the city and its citizens and boost accessibility? The answers lie both in education, and in employers going out of their comfort zone and widening their search for future talent.

With the launch of Equal.London, I make this my mission for the foreseeable future – to keep making the case for attracting talent wherever it comes from, or however unpolished it is. The world of entrepreneurship understand this. It’s time that the establishment did too – for the sake of London’s, and Britain’s, future.

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