John Bird: We can’t wait, the time to plan tomorrow is now

We will need a reinvention of the welfare state to cope with the enormous demands thrown by the coronavirus crisis

It’s surprising the amount of people who are against social mobility who are themselves socially mobile. That means they are not ground down, don’t have to attend foodbanks, and are not living on the paltry amount awarded to most recipients of Universal Credit.

They are not the working poor. They are not stuck somewhere where life is grim.

Yet there they are, saying things like social mobility suggests getting people to aspire out of their class or social situation, thus leaving other poor people behind.

I of course am socially mobile, and have been for most of my life. Because education and skills training obtained through the prison service and the youth reformatory system enabled me to up my game with regard to work and socialising. Hence my ability to charm the arse off wealthy people so I could get money to start, among other things, The Big Issue.

I defend social mobility because I believe it should be for everyone. No one should be left behind. Although probably ‘social opportunity’ is nearer the mark. Yet those with social mobility should encourage other people to join their club, not run it down from a position of comfort.

I had a conversation with a street drinker – at more than arm’s length – last week, who was definitely not socially mobile. He did the “It’s all-fucking-right for you, you ponce, but what about us who’re stuck?” I was trying to suggest that he get indoors and try selling The Big Issue when it returns to the streets. He got very cross until I gave him a tenner. I felt he had earned it. That classic line about his social immobility got me thinking once again about this problem, where the socially mobile are seen as the ones who don’t like it for others.

Walking, running, health-making activities should be seen as NHS-saving devices as much as personal health requirements

But I do understand people’s trepidation that social mobility could be seen as a means of separating people, and leaving the stuck still stuck. Isn’t that what the 1944 Butler Education Act did when it creamed off the 11 per cent of the British working class who passed the 11-plus? And made them the managers, novelists, social workers et cetera of the class-divided system that was still maintained? As one who failed the exams and ended up in a godawful secondary modern school, I learned to resent this social mobility, handed out to some but not available to people like myself. As I said above, I was saved though by Her Majesty’s correctional system, which helped me make up for earlier failure.

But social mobility for all is my call, although preferring the concept of social opportunity for all. 

The latest disdain for social mobility was expressed by a contributor in my first piece of parliamentary activity done digitally, last week. I had previously tried to get into a debate in the Digital Chamber but my technology failed. Now, though, I’m on top of it. There probably will be many occasions in the future to do the digital thing because, aged 74, I won’t be welcome back on the streets of Westminster any time too soon.

The greatest pain for me is my inability to get up and walk across London. I’m locked down with the rest of us, but my age will extend the lockdown until a vaccine or the end of the pandemic arrives.

So getting off at Liverpool Street or King’s Cross and walking across London is a thing of the past for the moment. Not wishing to catch anything, and then have to be sorted out in an over-stretched NHS, keeps me indoors.

What does the future hold? Certainly the huge bill for Covid-19 will not be paid off for half a century or so. It took that long to pay off the debt run up in the Second World War. I do hope we won’t get a dumb-arsed government that tries to cut further and create Austerity Mark 2. That would be disastrous for those who will have fallen into poverty because of coronavirus; as well as those in it already.

Things could be bleak if there isn’t a strategic game plan to respond to poverty. Bleak, and also a further drain on the NHS itself, which is always left with the job of sponging up the problems created by poverty.

Hence the fact that the NHS has always tried to square the circle of getting people who have passed through the dungeon of poverty back to health. 

The stopgap, the short-term, the emergency response are things that have had to be done in this period of pandemic. But once out of it we will need serious planning around social support, a reinvention of the welfare state no less, to cope with the enormous demands thrown by the corona crisis.

The government needs to be planning for that today, in the same way that the welfare state was itself planned in the middle of the war – not after it.

Walking, running, health-making activities should be seen as NHS-saving devices as much as personal health requirements.

And more social mobility for all please.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief  of The Big Issue