A nudge towards genuine social mobility

9 April 2011

I have always thought “nudge” theory was an absurd excuse for a political
ideology: just another way of arguing against state intervention. But Nick Clegg has almost forced me to eat my words with his comments about free internships. The Deputy Prime Minister has
probably done more in one speech to improve the conditions of young, unpaid interns than any central government diktat. It is, after all, already illegal not to pay the minimum wage.
This furore has sent a chill through the political and media classes which are both awash with privileged and/or exploited young people who can afford to work for nothing. Arbiters of public
morality such as newspapers, charities, think tanks and political parties have been happy to build free labour into their business models.

Now the HMRC is set to look into MPs who don’t pay their
interns. Good.
One of the most healthy aspects of the debate has been an outbreak of unashamed chippiness. Alison Pearson, for example, who penned these fiercely resentful words for the Telegraph:
“When Ed Miliband was 15, he got work experience in Tony Benn’s office at the Commons. When I was 15, I got work in the ladies’ underwear department of Littlewoods. Ed was a
scion of the north London Marxist aristocracy. He had parents who could open doors for him. I didn’t, so I had to open drawers.”

Suzanne Moore is deliciously bitter in today’s Guardian: “I find myself being
lectured about social mobility by those who were born at the top and, er … amazingly, stayed at the top. So agile!”

So where do we go from here? Naming and shaming is a good start. I have been impressed by Jilted Generation journalist Shiv Malik’s
Twitter campaign against my old employer the New Statesman this week, which systematically uses free labour to produce the magazine.
But we also need to find ways of cracking the intern culture open. Nick Clegg and David Cameron may be posh boys but they certainly understand that the enterprise culture they wish to encourage
will not happen if a large proportion of the population is held back. The Labour Party gets this too, although it did far too little about it during its 13 years in power. In opposition, there are
signs that this could change. The young people from New Deal of the Mind speaking at the launch of the Labour Party’s new creative industries policy review this week recognised that job opportunities in the future would have to
be created rather than simply handed out.
This feeling was echoed at the Editorial Intelligence conference on Enterprise this Thursday. However, higher education minister David Willetts let
the cat out of the bag when he admitted that most “entrepreneurs” in Britain established their businesses using inherited money or at least had parents who were self-employed.
The fundamental problem Nick Clegg faces in his drive for increased social mobility is the desire of middle class parents to do the best for their children.This is one of the reasons Editorial
Intelligence founder Julia Hobsbawm and I have set up Talent to Work, which aims to give networking opportunities to the “not-yet employed”. In an
attempt to redress the balance, membership costs will subsidise places for the long-term unemployed people who are graduating from New Deal of the Mind placements.
We have to find imaginative ways around this problem. It can not be sustainable to draw our talent from such a limited pool of class and race. In the end, the initiative will have to come from
enlightened businesses which simply refuse to take the easy option. By means of a nudge, or a giant poke in the ribs, it must become the orthodox view that the use of free intern labour is a sign
of failure.

Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.

Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice blog.

  • diana

    Does that mean that boy from the council estate cant get a job in his uncles shop ? Its how it works all over the world at every layer of society and has done so for centuries. Social engineering – they just cant help themselves

  • Tarka the Rotter

    Am much bemused by this ‘social mobility’ obsession – we have social mobility, which of course works BOTH ways. When people promote social mobility, they always assume this means upwards. However, given the way the political parties hammer the middle classes and do everyting they can to squeeze them until the pips squeak, what’s the incentive to move upwards into a higher tax bracket? Isn’t this an Orwellian case of doublethink?

  • David Vinter

    No matter what the PM, and the deputy PM understand about work. My late father that became self employed at age 19 in 1922,knew a hell of a lot more about it. He got no winks or pushes from his docker father. He worked 7 days a week, mostly mending farm, tractors, visiting local farms on an ex WW1 motorcycle and sidecar. Apart from working for the Air Ministry during WW2 he lived his whole life a self employed workaholic.

  • Charlie

    Part of the problem is that most omprehensive schools, especially former Seconadry Moderns lack, the contacts of grammar schools. Compare the educational backgrounds of the teachers of most grammar schools to those at comprehensives. The Head of Department of most grammar schools would have gone to top universities and have friends in senior positions in major institutions from their student days. The Head of Chemistry of a top grammar school in the NW of England would probably have friends in senior positions in ICI up to the mid 80s. The Heads of Physics and Maths would probably have friends who were in in senior postions in within engineering within the UK. Admissions tutors at top universities would probably be friends with the Heads of Department and consequently, most grammar schools would prepare pupils for university entrance throughout the sixth form. The recently retired Head of Chemistry at Dulwich had a doctorate from Imperial College! The senior NCO in the school CCF would probably been a NCO in local regiment and provided enouragement to those wishing to follow a military career. Many comprehensive teachers have B.Ed or general degrees from teacher training colleges, and/or polys etc. Many comprehensives post mid 70s reduced competitive sports, orchestras, CCF, public speaking and debating competitions, outward expeditions, acting compared to the previous gramar schools. Many officers started their training in the school CCF. To be an officer in te Parachute Regiment or RMs, it is beneficial if one has played rugby, rowed, boxed to standards approaching county level or higher. Consequenly, many comprehensives post mid 70s neither developed nor gave the guidance to pupils received by those who attended grammar schools. Look at the alumni section of schools mentioned in Wikipedia while they were grammar schools and when they became comprehensives. What would be interesting would be to determine the back ground of teachers in grammar schools and those when they became comprehensives and also look at the activities offered. Many of the most able grammar school teacers, especially those keen on sport and music, left for public schools post mid 1970s, once the schools became comprehensives.

  • Ian Walker

    Any moderately competent statistician (i.e. no-one in politics or journalism) will tell you about the Pigeonhole Principle.

    Applied to social mobility, you have to draw the conclusion that in order for people to move up the “ladder”, you have to displace some of the people who are currently destined for the top rungs.

    Since being as high up the ladder as possible is the goal of every organism on Earth, you can’t do it by “nudging.” You need to push them off, or more typically, pull them down with grapnels.

  • Sir Everard Digby

    ah the delicious irony = Erica Blair bemoaning ‘professional liars’ Have you missed the Labour Party’s last 13 years in office? I must have missed your vigorous protests.

    Your ire at Mr Malik’s ability to perpetuate a large untruth is commendable. Have you forgotten the Iraq invasion so quickly? Surely a much worthier target where untruths are concerned?

  • 48Crash

    If nepotism and ‘a word in a suitable ear’ were good enough for Father, Son & Holy Ghost then surely we’re only following their example.

  • In2minds

    Interns, free labour and the exploited. But then I see a plan that talks of ‘balance’ and I worry. Could the fix be worse than the problem?

  • Erica Blair

    Spectator readers might wonder who this Shiv Malik character is. Malik wrote a book called ‘Leaving Al-Qaeda’. This purported to tell the story of how a radical Islamist called Hassan recanted and became a provider of useful propaganda for Martin Bright’s comrade, fellow former Staggers columnist and now Speccie blogger, Nick Cohen!

    This is what Cohen wrote about Butt.

    ‘How we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy,’ Butt recalled in an outburst that stuck in my mind. ‘By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the “Blair’s bombs” line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamist theology.’

    The problem for Cohen and Malik was that Butt was in his own words, ‘a professional liar’. A liar who was prepared to say just what people like Cohen wanted him to say.

    How was it that Shiv Malik was able to write a whole book which was entirely untrue? What were his fact-checking skills?

    Is it any wonder that the New Statesman no longer employs Malik, Cohen or Bright, or that they now find work on the far right of the political spectrum?

  • Erica Blair

    ‘I have been impressed by Jilted Generation journalist Shiv Malik’s Twitter campaign against my old employer the New Statesman this week, which systematically uses free labour to produce the magazine.’

    Is this why you have retweeted Guido’s lie that Laurie Penny employed unpaid staff?

  • Victor Southern

    Terrible thing – parents wanting the best for their offspring. How unnatural! Next they will be demanding proper education from the state schools. Where will it end?

    The government should definitely legislate against such evil practices.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    I’ll repeat this here, I’ve posted it before. The engine of social mobility is the individual. The measure of success in life lies with the individual. It is not the government’s business. There are pleny of problems which ARE the responsibility of the government, which they do not address or cannot fix. This is not one of them. It’s not actually Martin Bright’s job either, but by all means give it a go, if you don’t use public money. Oh, and yes they are a bunch of hypocritical bastards, or at least most of them.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here