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THERESA May's conference speech highlighted that fewer than two in five young people have a mortgage whereas nearly three in five did so in 2010. Identifying the affordability of housing as her government's priority demonstrates that Mrs May has recognised that those with nothing to conserve may have no interest in voting Conservative.

Mrs May discussed this in terms of 'The British Dream', a term of recent coinage which translates as social mobility. She included a large dose of personal biography in this argument. Her grandmother was a domestic servant whose descendants include the sitting Prime Minister and three professors (yes, let's hear it for the professors). She drew warm applause through this connection between her family's history and 'The British Dream', The problem however is that there is no British Dream. There is however a British Nightmare - the loss of social status.

We have known this for generations. Over a century ago the socialist writer, Robert Tressell, observed that no one in this country was happy unless they had someone to look down on. For his fellow painters and decorators, the obvious candidates were foreigners; for their employers the obvious candidate was them.

Every class system has distinctive features. Lou Reed once observed that in America there were two classes, those with money were everything and those without were nothing (he used more lurid language but you can get the point).

Our class system is older and more subtle but it shares with every other this fundamental feature - loss of status is far more significant a stick than advancement is a carrot. The relevant research calls this 'loss aversion' and suggests that most of us are damaged far more by losses than we are pleased with by gains. It's the loss of the comfortable life that is driving the young away from the Tories.

Although the phrase 'The British Dream' is risible, the idea of social mobility has been mighty powerful. For generations the British political class has equated social mobility with social justice, sharing the belief that so long as everyone has a chance of climbing the ladder, then the social order is justified. This united everyone from the Tory Right to the Labour centre.

Hence, Tony Blair's one-time acolyte Alan Milburn was commissioned by the Coalition government to look into the crisis in social mobility and Nick Clegg's contribution to that government was focused on equalising life chances; free school meals and the pupil premium being the principal examples.

However, as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour demonstrates, the reaction to social disadvantage is not always a desire to climb the ladder. For the socialist left, it's about lowering the angle of the ladder, to strive for equality and not just equality of opportunity.

So let me join Mrs May in some personal narrative to illustrate the difference. As a child I lived in a Council house opposite a private park. I felt a sense of deep injustice at not being allowed to play there but I didn't want to be wealthy enough to do so; I wanted to open the park to anyone who wanted to use it.

Likewise in a primary school debate I argued that everyone should be paid the same salary. Why is it, said my ten-year-old self, that people lucky enough to work in nice offices also get to earn more money than those who collect the bins? I was reminded of this by the death last week of the former union leader, and Northumbria University graduate, Rodney Bickerstaffe. He used to ask: "Why is it that to make the rich work harder we pay them more, but to make the poor work harder we pay them less?" His campaign for a national minimum wage was ultimately successful, and it stemmed from a belief in equality, not just equality of opportunity.

One of the interesting features of the challenge posed by Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party is that it represents social aspiration, not personal success but a more equal society. As you can probably tell, I still have sympathy for this but socialism's problem is that the attempt to enforce equality through the state has so often ended in disaster. There are no shortcuts to a more equal society, it requires both state and local action, through housing associations, mutuals, co-operatives and above all through changing people's hearts and minds.

As the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in 1960, the problem is not the individual against society but "what sort of society we want and what sort of individuals we want to be."

| Ron Beadle is Professor of Organisation and Business Ethics at Northumbria University
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 7, 2017
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