We need a society which is on the up

The Social Mobility Commission has confirmed what many have long known – governments have failed to significantly reduce inequalities. The Brexit vote and the subsequent soul searching has finally brought many of these issues to the fore. The growing sense of disenfranchisement in the country and increasing gap between “haves and have nots” is now penetrating mainstream discourse, prompting a political rhetoric of an ‘economy that works for all’ where the benefits of growth are shared among the ‘many, not the few’.

What we have been doing has clearly not worked

The UK economy has not worked for all for a long time. Indeed our economic models for decades have tolerated, and been somewhat unconcerned, by high levels of socio-economic inequality. What we have been doing collectively to address challenges of poverty and inequality over the past two decades have clearly not worked. In its report Social mobility policies between 1997 and 2017: time for change, the Commission argues that successive governments have failed to make social mobility the cornerstone of domestic policy, and that long-term progress has too often been sacrificed to short-term change. A piecemeal approach has bought some advances, but a failure to develop a holistic policy approach has meant that gains have been lost as efforts have waxed and waned.

Is ‘inclusive growth’ the answer?

The recent emergence of the concept of ‘inclusive growth’ has grabbed the attention of all those who wish to build an economy for all. While this has started a welcome discussion and a step in the right direction, CLES have argued (see our response to the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission) that as framed, inclusive growth is a flawed concept with poor ideological roots. Without a challenge to the pervasive agglomeration model of economic development, inclusive growth will only be an add-on and any shift (albeit welcome) toward social infrastructure will only be driven by a desire to free up the market more. An inclusive growth agenda which is accepting of prevailing austerity will not sufficiently address the drivers of low productivity for all people in all places.

Social mobility is not enough

While ‘inclusive growth’ misses the point or is too weak, social mobility in itself, will also not deliver for all people in all places. If social mobility is the goal, then there will still be winners and losers. Building aspiration, removing barriers and moving up the able from poverty are of course noble intentions, but there will still be those who are left behind, with ever widening inequalities with more entrenched pockets of deprivation. We need to focus on delivering social and economic equality if we are to deliver an economy that truly works for all.

What needs to be done

The Commission’s report identifies a hunger for change and a need for radical new approaches to make Britain a fairer and more equal country. For over 30 years CLES has worked collaboratively with localities to adopt different approaches to economic development, regeneration and local governance and have long promoted an economic agenda which is about localising, socialising and democratising the economy. Our starting point is an acknowledgement that the economic sphere is not distinct from the social, they are one and the same. We must therefore root our economy in social justice and be guided by the limits of the environment to create a country in which wealth is enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

In What Needs to be Done: The Manifesto for Local Economies we set out how central and local government, alongside business and civil society can develop policy, practice and action to build community wealth, fund decent public services for all, enable a socially just devolution and invest in skills and decent work. The practical policy solutions and pointers which will enable change, accelerate the transformational and create an economy for all are already in place. All we need to do is accelerate this new local economics for the benefit of all.