Whilst restoring Britain’s public finances and securing economic growth is the Coalition’s most pressing short-term priority, building the Opportunity Society is our party’s most important long-term task, and should form the basis of a distinctive Conservative platform for the next general election. The Opportunity Society has two dimensions: first, a society where community spirit and pride are renewed, so individuals take greater responsibility for themselves and their neighbours; and secondly, and most importantly, a society where social mobility flourishes, so that people can go as far and as fast in life as their talents will take them. Greater social mobility and community spirit are crucial not only to creating a fairer, more open society at ease with itself, but also to creating empowered individuals, stronger communities, and an economically competitive nation. In the Opportunity Society the State’s role will be to empower and enable individuals to make the most of their abilities, reward their hard work, and bring down the barriers that prevent their success.
After 13 years of Labour, there is much to do. Today, the life-chances of British children remain heavily dependent on the circumstances of their birth. According to the Cabinet Office, only 20% of young people from the poorest families achieve five good GCSEs, compared to 75% from richer families, whilst the Sutton Trust found that between 2007-2009, four schools and one college sent more students to Oxbridge than 2000 other state schools combined. An LSE study found Britain lagging behind our competitors such as Germany, France, Canada and Australia in terms of social mobility. We can’t afford to waste such talent. Britain needs to be an Opportunity Society, where success in life is based on talent and ambition not family background, the school you attended or the postcode you grew up in.
The Coalition has already made a good start: the new Pupil Premium to raise attainment for the most disadvantaged pupils; IDS’ Work Programme to help people from welfare into work; Michael Gove’s new generation of free schools and academies; more apprenticeships; and the publication of a cross-departmental Social Mobility Strategy. But it needs to go further. For example, Carol Vorderman’s recommendation that British students should study maths until 18 should be adopted. Pupils should also keep going with a modern foreign language until the same age, and every sixth former should have a mentor, such as a local business person. We will also need to tackle major issues such as the "crony capitalism" described by Jesse Norman, and the UK's Digital Divide by providing greater access to broadband and computers. In the coming years, Britain’s economy needs a deep pool of numerate, multilingual, innovative, commercially-savvy workers from which the nation can draw. In the era of globalisation, it makes sense economically for Britain to be an Opportunity Society. It can’t afford not to be. As Conservatives, our task is to prepare Britain for the future by building the Opportunity Society.
It also makes sense politically. Inter-generational fairness and social mobility resonate with voters. It goes to the heart of what most people want from life, and it wins elections amongst a key group of voters: the aspirational workers on middle and modest incomes. ConservativeHome labels them "the battlers/strivers". In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham instinctively understood what motivated them, and her policies, like "right to buy", ensured a period of political domination which changed British politics forever. According to Ipsos-MORI, at the 2010 general election, Conservatives secured 39% of the C1 (lower middle class) against 28% for Labour, and 37% of the C2 (skilled workers) vote to Labour's 29%. Thatcher and Blair both cleaned up amongst C1s and C2s, usually breaking the 40% barrier. So, come 2015, our mission once again will be to act as the voice of the mainstream majority, and connect with the hard working family; the small business taking on an apprentice or new graduate; the middle manager putting in extra hours to pay for a family holiday; the entrepreneur starting a new business; the single parent going out to work for the first time to give their child a better future. These are the mainstream majority in Britain – and they are yearning for our Party to build the Opportunity Society to help them get on in life, not just get by.
Freedom, opportunity and success are precious gifts and our Party’s purpose has always been to ensure they are within reach of everyone, not just the few. As Conservatives our instincts are to help individuals and communities who strive to achieve and to better themselves. Offering to build the Opportunity Society is the key to winning the next election – and the key to winning Britain’s future. In his first Conference speech in 2010 Ed Miliband talked of building the “Good Society” and the “British Promise”, but the damage Labour did to communities and social mobility means they lack credibility. That presents our party with an opportunity. The Conservatives need a positive, inspiring platform and a new political paradigm that can unite the country. We need to set out a new vision underpinned by equality of opportunity that unites rather than divides us from each other, that supports people who strive to achieve and to better themselves, but which also asks each of us to support our neighbours in the same way. At the next election, our mission is to build not just the Good Society or even the Big Society – but to start building, at last, the Opportunity Society.