Social mobility and the Lib Dems: will Alan Milburn’s appointment help?

The weekend media was full of the news of Alan Milburn’s putative return to front-line politics with his appointment to a role advising the Coalition Government on policies to promote social mobility.

Reaction to the news has been mixed. John Prescott, never one to mince his words when he can mangle them instead, spat out that Mr Milburn was a “collaborator”. Conservative blogger Iain Dale was disappointed to see the Coalition’s big tent expanding to include a former New Labour cabinet minister: “One day they might actually appoint a Conservative.”

For the Lib Dems, Simon Hughes was more amenable to the appointment: “I think we have got to be non-partisan and non-tribal about these things and if good people are willing to work for the Government, whatever their background, they should be welcomed.” (So long as they are full UK taxpayers, of course.)

And I agree with Simon. While there was always rather too much “something of the sharp elbows” about Mr Milburn in Tony Blair’s cabinet, he is a bright and interesting figure, with a strong interest in the importance of early years for promoting social mobility among those born into poorer backgrounds.

The issue of social mobility has been something of a lacuna in the Coalition’s programme for government. In the original Lib Dem / Conservative agreement, it was mentioned just once: in the context of Lord Browne’s review of university tuition fees. Even in the full text agreement, it fares little better, referenced in passing alongside the need to promote equalities.

There are already measures being put in place by the Coalition to promote social mobility – for example, the pupil premium and the cutting of income tax for the lowest paid – but these are individual measures, not a comprehensive strategy for increasing absolute measures of social mobility.

It is welcome, then, that Nick Clegg himself is personally to spearhead the new drive.

After all, it was he who made much of the statistic that Lib Dem audiences heard ad infinitum during his leadership bid and beyond that “a child born in a poor neighbourhood in Sheffield where I’m an MP will die on average 14 years before a child born in a wealthier area”. And one of Nick’s first acts as Lib Dem leader was to establish a commission to examine social mobility, chaired by chief executive of Barnardo’s Martin Narey. Social mobility is also a natural fit with Nick’s cabinet committee responsibilities, as he chairs the cabinet committee on domestic affairs.

The other primary area of Nick’s responsibilities as Deputy Prime Minister is the political reform agenda: vital stuff, about which liberals and Lib Dems care greatly. However, a lot of it is internal, process-driven work: the AV referendum, fixed-term parliamemts, Lords reform, etc.

If the Lib Dems are to prove we have made a difference to the country – that we have made the UK fairer as a direct consequence of our involvement in the Coalition – then social mobility is definitely the right issue for Nick Clegg to adopt and make his own in the next few years. And if Alan Milburn can help the Coalition achieve that, then so much the better.

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  • It seems a shame not to use Martin Narey’s excellent (and recent) report.

  • Given that he was part of a a government that failed abysmally in this regard.

    A government that was comprehensively shoed into touch at the last election.

    It’s a bit embarrassing really.

  • An interesting appointment. And before Milburn is portrayed as a sop to the left-leaning Lib Dems in the coalition government, it’s worth noting that social mobility depends to a large degree on education – and that Milburn not only supports the free schools agenda being taken forward by Michael Gove but actually thinks the policy should be bolder and allow profit-making bodies (as well as parents’ groups, charities etc) to run schools, as is the case in Sweden. That would be an interesting debate for him to open up…

  • Alex Sabine 16th Aug '10 - 1:49pm

    One reason Milburn failed to make as much progress as he might have done was that Gordon Brown curbed his more radical reforming instincts, being both personally hostile to him and unwilling to loosen the levers of centralised state power. (It often seems to me that those Lib Dems who oppose practically any reform of public services – and certainly any reforms aiming to transfer power not only between different arms of government but to people themselves – display a similar conservatism of thought, for all their radical pretensions.)

    The NHS reforms now being pursued by the coalition follow Milburn’s template and as I mentioned above he has advocated radical supply-side reform of education that would go beyond the Gove reforms.

    Grammar schools did indeed improve social mobility, not only for a few Tory MPs but for a whole generation of aspirational working class people. The problem was that the structure of grammar schools and secondary moderns actually adopted (the technical schools were neglected) badly served 75% of the population. In any case no one in the government is proposing the creation of new grammar schools, and Alan Milburn isn’t likely to either, so this is not a faultline within the coalition and something of a red herring here.

    (Finally there are significant problems with some of the research and presentation of statistics in The Spirit Level which I will come back to another time since it seems to get cited here so often. Suffice it to say it’s not some revelatory text the mere mention of which can be ritually invoked as a clinching argument in favour of traditional egalitarian policies, as many on the left seem to imagine.)

  • Patrick Smith 16th Aug '10 - 5:34pm

    It is clear that one of the most important bench marks to test will be the success of the `Coalition Government’ over the next 5 years will be by how much the inequality gap is reduced.And we must find the means of accurately measuring a much bigger increase in `social mobility’ and greater opportunities for young people by 2015.

    This in itself is a lode star project to achieve for this Government. Labour signally failed to reduce `inequality’ and in fact it increased during their 13 years in Office.

    I hope that Alan Milburn will read and be mentored by the researched findings of `The Spirit Level’ -Why Equality is Better for Everyone’–Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett-Penquin as it explodes the old shibboleths that big spending on Health and Education is not in itself the solution to the problem.

    I believe that that psychological identity and how young persons see themselves and their role over the next ten years as being crucial to solving the problem of how to tackle `social inequality’. This must mean that our young persons see themselves as being an important part of the Economy either in terms of learning new skills ,in full-time training or on education programmes or in jobs.

    Youth unemployment is still very high and a major factor in the `social equality’ project.

  • Patrick the sacking of staff to help young people and the programmes to help with job search will mean that young people will clearly have a massive equality gap. The proposals of the coilition have ensured this happens

  • Chris Snowdon 17th Aug '10 - 12:03am

    @ Geoffrey Payne

    If (and it’s a big if) The Spirit Level’s claims about social mobility are correct, is it not more likely that a lack of social mobility leads to greater inequality, rather than the other way round? I can see how low social mobility would entrench inequalities and strengthen the class system. I’m not so sure it would work the other way. I would be very worried if income inequality led to low social mobility but if the association works the other way round, there are things we can do to improve social mobility which will also reduce inequality. A win-win, in other words. Are we treating the symptom or the disease?

  • >Labour signally failed to reduce `inequality’ and in fact it increased during their 13 years in Office.
    > `The Spirit Level’ -Why Equality is Better for Everyone’–….explodes the old shibboleths that big spending on Health and Education is not in itself the solution to the problem.

    Too many negatives in there (!), but if you’re saying chucking money at health/education IS in itself a solution – how come inequality increased under Labour?
    (I suspect the answer is those at the bottom stayed the same, while those at the top got a lot richer: eg bosses awarding themselves massive pay rises/bonuses etc, anyone with a few quid to spare becoming a ‘property developer’).

    Isn’t the problem poverty of spirit/attitude/culture, more than money?

    Family I know, living on a pretty crummy housing estate. Boy starts doing cannabis in mid teens, steals money to buy drugs, leaves school with nothing but a criminal record, unemployable, common story. Sister defies the failure culture (among pupils) at their school, gets A-levels, goes to university, makes something of her life.

    I went to a comp with a big catchment area. Come the sixth form, there were no kids from the local council estate left, only kids from ‘nice’ backgrounds. Equal opportunity from day one, but lot of kids had chosen not to take advantage of it.

    Two mums I heard in a shop once, went roughly: “I saw your Courtenay bunking off school over the rec yesterday.” Second woman, in tone of pride/nostalgia: “Yeah? That’s where we used to go when we bunked off.”

    Or what about those mums pushing burgers through school railings to their kids? Or people dying of smoking-related diseases? Or binge drinking? Or even people who think being fined for speeding is a ‘war against the motorist’? Bad diet and smoking and drinking shorten lives, but that’s personal choice to be irresponsible, not government failure to spend money educating people that smoking etc is harmful.

    You can chuck all the money in the world at problems, but unless people WANT to change, or want to make the best of their lives, it’s money down the drain.
    Educating very young children to realise that learning is a good thing, rather than boring, would be a start. That doesn’t need extra money, just a different emphasis.

    If Labour has been getting that right, it may not notice until today’s kids are parents, of course. You can’t change culture overnight. Today’s problem parents and young adults were born and educated before Labour took office.

  • Patrick Smith 17th Aug '10 - 6:02pm

    In response to Cassie, I would say that making good worthwhile positive lifestyle choices is at the fulcrum in the process of individual education for a working class kid,especially coming from a council estate, such as the one that you recount in your personal experience.

    Around Britain today, there remains still ,countless `tough council estates’,some with `no-go areas’ even for the police, often built without any progressive attitude by previous Councils, as to the role of social housing to future generations.The social and health impact that placement of young families in high rise blocks has had alone on the future lives of families,leaving aside education chances, at the local school serving their catchment has suspended all belief with the lack of ambition and imagination of so called social housing planners, notably in the 1960`s.

    I have visited many of the condemned social housing estates in LBWF over 25 years and am pleased to add that nearly all have now been torn down and replaced by smaller and more sustainable community housing : but violent crime and drugs remains a significant issue and impact on decent family life for many.

    I am not surprised that Sir Ian Gilmour the retiring Chair of the College and Society of Physicians, whom surely has over a life-time of research provided universal expert knowledge and help to youngsters, as a result of his unstinting and peerless concern for the victims of drug,substance and alcohol abuse. He has however, said he thinks that one pragmatic solution to help stop crime for drugs purchasing for addicts would be to legalise some hard drugs.

    I do not agree that this is the way forward but retain a high respect for this eminent public servant and medical researcher.

    When children become a certain age most know that the most important choices come from within.

    But a successful and satisfactory lifestyle and personal esteem outcome will be enjoyed the more for the completing of an apprenticeship, vocational training,gaining sufficient GCSE`s at 16 or A levels or NVQ`s .

    These important and vital educational and job training milestones should become the gateway to a fulfilled life and will transform environment for all who take up the baton.

  • I just saw clegg slagging labour off again for getting it all wrong on social mobilty and what is his anwser?
    Appoint a labour man to sort it all out..go figure that one out!

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