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Opinion

John Bird: Hope of a better life can bring people in from the cold

“We can’t just concentrate on greasing the wheels for those who are moving forward without helping those who find it impossible to get ahead”

Apparently there are 65 cold spots of social mobility in the UK, of which 60 voted ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum. This is according to the Social Mobility Commission report that was such a damning indictment of government policy – we’re in ‘a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division’ – that its chair and members resigned en masse. ‘En masse’ in this case reading four resignations.

What is a cold spot in this case? It’s a place where social mobility doesn’t get a look in. That it can be, and often is, surrounded by hot spots of social agility. That raising one’s game, one’s expectations, one’s quality of food, health, work, exercise and one’s life expectancy just isn’t going to happen.

You’re screwed, and on the way to either unemployment, under-employment (a zero-hours contract or tax credits because your boss won’t give you a living wage), mental health issues and possibly an over-reliance on stimulants, cigarettes and drink.

A civilised society doesn’t turn its back on those that need ‘support’ and puts all of its fresh governmentally hatched eggs into the social mobility basket

Win the lottery and you might get out. Otherwise, it ain’t going to happen.

This is a bleak prospect for many. To know that you’ll never get holidays, clothing, space to wonder, education, ease of living – and live forever discomforted by the cramped conditions of your paucity – is a life sentence.

I have, like many of the formerly socially immobile made mobile, been banging on about this for centuries. One time, after a TV programme, I was faced with a questioning Ed Miliband. At the time he was Prime-Minister-in-waiting, if he could prove his credentials at the next election in 2015. He had also been on the programme and had a worrying look to his countenance. He said something like ‘But John, social mobility isn’t everything. What about support?’ We had a chat about it, but I didn’t reduce his perturbation about my insistence on more social opportunity.

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I’ve always liked Ed. He was social enterprise minister, which was a ministry for greasing the wheels of social good for those hardest hit by marketplace-led capitalism. He had moved on since his years in Brown’s government. Now he had to be in permanent ‘Prime Minister-in-waiting’ mode. Hence, moving from concerns about one area to becoming concerned about ‘all things’.

Ed got it in one. What he meant by ‘support’, I believe, was the ‘left-behinds’ – those that weren’t going anywhere fast. We can’t all head for the tip of the socially and politically comfortable pinnacle, so to speak; there will be people left behind for reasons of age, health, ability – and of course, income, education and ambition. He was making a plea for people who (before World War Two) were often referred to as ‘the Have Nots’.

A civilised society doesn’t turn its back on those that need ‘support’ and puts all of its fresh governmentally hatched eggs into the social mobility basket.

I have to agree with Labour’s erstwhile leader, who may well be the most recent addition to that vast group of The Best Prime Minsters We Never Had. We can’t just concentrate on greasing the wheels for those who are moving forward without helping those who find it impossible to get ahead.

That was, and I say this sincerely, the humanity of the man. He could not forget about those who didn’t have all of his and my advantages. And that, I suggest, is one of the first requirements of a great Prime Minister-in-waiting. Unfortunately, as time has proved, when a Prime Minister is dragooned into leading the show, they often fall on the first or second fence.

Much was made in recent media commentary about Theresa May’s promise that her government would look after all; and not just the ‘powerful, mighty or wealthy’. Why did she say that? And say it as she entered office in the first days of her honeymoon in July 2016?

I think there must be a trip mechanism that operates underneath the paving slabs of Downing Street. As soon as someone gets into office, they seem to slip into the euphoria of the moment. And the first thing they say is that ‘From now on, henceforth, from this moment, and not a moment too soon, everything will gel into place, and love, compassion and efficiency will embrace the body politic’.

There is a wonderful sculpture from the ancient world – Laocoön – of a Trojan priest and his sons wrestling with enormous gods-sent snakes. Imagine the priest is a new prime minister and the snakes, far from being ‘life-threatening’, are wrapping themselves around her in the spirit of purpose, mission and promise.

Sorry, I do get fanciful sometimes. But I stood in Downing Street when Ted Heath spoke this drivel about a new world order in 1970. Wilson and Callaghan followed suit, Thatcher memorably promised “harmony, truth and hope”, as did Blair, Brown and Cameron. I suppose even the ever-practical John Major may have fallen to indulging himself in such claims to eternity in 1990. I can’t remember.

Prime Ministers should be warned about the damage done to their own reputations in those opening moments of bull. I’m sure it’s seen as part of the job. But perhaps future office-holders could save us the ritual of seeing them eating their hyperbolic utterances, henceforth?

The strange thing that also came out of the Social Mobility Commission report was that Mrs May is too wrapped up in Brexit to get her head around social mobility concerns. But for the love of God! Wouldn’t you be, if you’d inherited the biggest piece of political hardware ever dropped on to the desk of that most senior office?

Happy Christmas folks. I love yer. Here’s hoping we can all live a more level-headed New Year in 2018. Sixty cold spots! Now that raises a Big Issue around Brexit we may all wish to think on.

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