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The lucky sperm club

Thatcherism broke up the old Tory establishment laying the foundations for a meritocracy, Tony Blair appears to have embraced the idea. Michael Young brilliantly satirised this 'ideal' society his 1958 fantasy, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Mike Davis asked him if he saw the features of that society in Blair's Britain.

Blair has been looking for the big idea to counter Thatcher's notion of the market and rolling back the state. The meritocracy could be it. He has always seen the idea positively. He is a typical meritocrat himself as are many members of the Cabinet. He wants to incorporate the idea of the market into his big idea. Meritocracy was not very prominent in Blair's Third Way but he has mentioned it many times. He sees the value of working class leadership and has made much of Prescott as a mascot. Many other MPs from working class backgrounds have been similarly incorporated.

People in the City, the new rich, are also liable to talk about meritocracy and having got to where they are on their own bat, without a silver spoon. The restraints on how rich you could make yourself have now gone.

Similarly people in the universities think they should be there because they deserve to be. No one could be sure who deserves to be there. They are members of the 'lucky sperm club'.

When I wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy I saw it as a fantasy. But I've changed my mind. It has now begun to happen in quite a big way. The idea is even more popular in the USA where there are lots of books about it and the theory pervades business.

My book was written as a warning of what might happen in Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033. It is highly unlikely the Prime Minister has read the book but he has caught on to the word without realising the dangers of what he is advocating. In the book, the Technicians Party, which helped lead the revolution against the meritocracy, was composed of older men who remembered the socialism of the early 20th Century and young women fed up with chauvinistic men. Their "Chelsea Manifesto" spoke of a classless society and of recognising the genius in everyone. But it is apparent that they would not have got anywhere if the whole basis of the meritocratic society was not being challenged by parents wanting to gain special advantages for their children. These parents said, "why do we need equal opportunities? We now have a new class based on merit".

The Blairites say, what's wrong with a society organised around merit if it abolishes the old hierarchies of inherited wealth and power? What is wrong with educational opportunities for all? What is wrong with the children of the successful having advantages and benefits of their parents' achievements?

This is what makes meritocracy such an insidious idea. It makes divisions of wealth and power more difficult to overcome because it suggests people are where they are because of merit not inheritance and it also involves incorporating the leaders of the working class, so the poor increasingly have no one to speak for them, they are disenfranchised.

Education is most important in the selection of people for social class positions. We have early streaming of those who are regarded as dullards. They are put in the lower streams and liable to stay there. Those put in the upper streams are liable to think of themselves as an elite, surrounded by many who have not been picked. They become smug early in their lives and think the reason they got on is because of their ability. This gives them quite a strong common bond.

Those with a superior education get the superior jobs, then are able to move into the house to be nearer the best schools. This all has long-lasting effects on the class structure. It leads to a complacent, smug and self-aggrandising top class. In the new social environment the rich and the powerful have been doing mighty well for themselves. They have been freed from the old kinds of criticism from people who had to be listened to. This once helped keep them in check, it has been the opposite under the Blair government. The business meritocracy is in vogue.

So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves. The old restraints of the business world have been lifted and, as the book also predicted, all manner of new ways for people to feather their own nests have been invested and exploited. Salaries and fees have shot up. Generous share option schemes have proliferated. Top bonuses and golden handshakes have multiplied. As a result general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes and without a bleat from the leaders of the party who once spoke up so trenchantly and characteristically for greater equality.

Modern business leaders can rule the roost better than any elite in the past because they are free from the articulate leaders of the underclass. Ability of a conventional kind which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education. A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education's narrow band of values. With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority and seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before. The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.

The underclass have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came. Their leaders were a standing opposition to the rich and powerful in the never-ending competition in parliament and industry between the haves and the have-nots. These people, like Bevan, Morrison and Bevin, were around under Attlee and others with Wilson but they are not around now.

People at the top are in a much stronger position now, while people at the bottom have lost their leaders. They are more sunken and the poor are more established and demoralised because no one is now telling them how valuable they are.

Ethnic minorities have not been so effectively incorporated into the meritocracy. The riots in Oldham and Bradford show the alienation of youth who have do not have a stake in the system. They would have joined the Technicians Party. They represent a hope for the future.

What is to be done about those consigned to the lower depths? It is a grim outlook. There are not many sparks to set the fire alight. It will become more and more uncomfortable in the cities with people driving in their locked cars and rarely venturing into the poorer areas. There will be more disenchanted youth not knowing what to do.

It appears that New Labour has ditched socialism. However, if Labour could be won to a reinvented socialism around the reformulation of traditional socialist ideas about equality, all sorts could change. It would help if Mr Blair dropped the word meritocracy from his vocabulary. Reviving local government as a way of involving local people and giving them the training needed for national politics would also help. The Labour Party and its fringes remain the centre of gravity for politics. It is important the all those who believe in greater equality and redistribution and who see through the meritocracy argument join with the campaign for Real Labour in taking these arguments forward.

Michael Young, when Secretary of the Policy Committee of the Labour Party, was responsible for drafting Let Us Face the Future, Labour's manifesto for the 1945 election. He has spawned many radical innovations including the Consumers Society and the Open University.

September/October 2001