The political economy of competitiveness and social mobility

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Social mobility has become a mainstream political and media issue in recent years in the United Kingdom. This article suggests that part of the reason for this is that it can serve as a mechanism to discuss policy concerns that appear to be about social justice without questioning important aspects of neo-liberal political economy. The article charts the policy rhetoric on social mobility under both New Labour and the current Coalition Government. It is argued first that under New Labour the apparent commitment to social mobility was in fact subsumed beneath the pursuit of neo-liberal competitiveness, albeit imperfectly realised in policy. Second, the article suggests that under the Coalition Government the commitment to raising levels of social mobility has been retained and the recently published Strategy for Social Mobility promises that social mobility is what the Coalition means when it argues that the austerity programme is balanced with ‘fairness’. Third, however, the Strategy makes clear that the Coalition define social mobility in narrower terms than the previous government. It is argued here that in narrowing the definition the connection with the idea of competitiveness, while still clearly desirable for the Coalition, is weakened. Fourth, a brief analysis of the Coalition's main policy announcements provides little evidence to suggest that even the narrow definition set out in the Strategy is being seriously pursued. Fifth, the international comparative evidence suggests that any strategy aimed at genuinely raising the level of social mobility would need to give much more serious consideration to narrowing levels of inequality. Finally, it is concluded that when considered in the light of the arguments above, the Strategy for Social Mobility – and therefore ‘Fairness’ itself – is merely a discursive legitimation of the wider political economy programme of austerity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)86-110
Number of pages25
JournalBritish Politics
Publication statusPublished - 20 Feb 2012
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'The political economy of competitiveness and social mobility'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this