May’s pledge to help the ‘left behind’ is dead – while she is prime minister, society will have to tackle inequality on its own

Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister who chaired the Social Mobility Commission for five years, has now concluded the political class is so paralysed by Brexit that it is no longer capable of taking the decisive action needed on social mobility

Young people associate capitalism with “an economic system that seems to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer … wired in the interests of crony capitalists”, the politician said. He told his party it must appeal to people “let down” by “the old economic model”.

Guess who? Jeremy Corbyn? No, Michael Gove, in a fascinating speech to the Centre for Policy Studies last night ranging way beyond his brief as environment secretary, and which has inevitably set Tory tongues wagging about his future leadership aspirations.

Theresa May used to talk about reforming the worst excesses of capitalism, helping the “left behind”, improving social mobility, and tackling the “burning injustice” she spoke impressively about in her mission statement outside 10 Downing Street when she became prime minister. True, she has published a groundbreaking race disparity audit, though critics pointed out it mainly confirmed the failures known to ministers for many years and did not offer many new remedies.

The most telling verdict on May’s record in this area is that the board of the Social Mobility Commission watchdog resigned en masse last December in protest at the government’s inertia. Remarkably, almost six months later, the Government is yet to appoint a new chair and members. Whitehall officials can say only that this will happen “in due course”.

Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister who chaired the commission for five years, has now concluded the political class is so paralysed by Brexit that it is no longer capable of taking the decisive action needed on social mobility. In a speech yesterday to the Bridge Group, which promotes the issue, Milburn warned that, as in the United States Rust Belt, those left behind by globalisation will fall further behind in a UK already deeply divided by income, class, gender, race, generations and geography.

Milburn said: “It is easy to rail against those who voted for Donald Trump or to leave the EU but the sense of political alienation and social resentment in so many parts of both the UK and the US is grounded in economic and community dislocation. Unless mainstream politics can find solutions to this problem, the answer will come, as we are already seeing in parts of Europe, from the extremism of either the hard left or the far right.”

With both main parties consumed by Brexit, Milburn argued, the political class is further undermined in the public’s eyes, as it struggles to cope with a new politics dominated by “three Is” – identity, immigration and inequality.

Milburn has reluctantly concluded that today’s “social crisis” cannot be solved by government, and so people will have to do it by themselves – through employers, local authorities, schools and universities. He believes that change is happening – for example, on sexual abuse and environmental protection – but via bottom-up social movements, and in spite of rather than because of politics.

He is taking his own advice by setting up an independent social mobility institute to find out what works and then help councils, charities, employers and educators to implement it.

Gillian Shephard, the Tory peer and former education secretary who left the commission along with Milburn, will serve on the new institute’s board.

If May were to live up to her words outside No 10, she would give such initiatives a helping hand. Sadly, her instincts were shown by the government’s decision to hand grammar schools £50m to take on more pupils. May is trying to salvage something from the ashes of her (very personal) Tory manifesto pledge a year ago to allow new grammars to open, abandoned because it would never get through the hung parliament.

The announcement might cheer a few Tory MPs with a bee in their bonnet about grammar. They include Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee – an important figure, as the only man who knows how many Tory MPs have written a letter (to him) calling for May to face a vote of confidence as party leader. But it flies in the face of evidence that grammars do not raise overall attainment in their areas or boost social mobility – on average, 3 per cent of their pupils are from disadvantaged families, compared to a national figure of 14 per cent. Justine Greening was fully aware of the evidence as education secretary and was shunted out of the job by May in January for refusing to expand grammars.

Like Milburn, Greening is now doing her bit outside government, launching a social mobility pledge urging companies to take on more working class employees. Another sign that, with government and politics weak, society needs to be strong, and adopt DIY solutions to the problems facing it.