Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Stakes and ladders

Alan Milburn, Progress’ new honorary president, talks to Jennifer Gerber about how Labour can give
people the opportunities to fulfil their aspirations

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The past year has certainly been eventful for Alan Milburn. His decision to step down as Secretary of State for Health in June took Westminster by surprise. However, despite no longer being a member of the cabinet, Milburn is certainly still plugged into the debates surrounding government and party, and certainly intends to make his voice heard.

Milburn’s time in the Department of Health thrust him onto the frontline battleground of public service reform. Does he think the emphasis on reform undermined the case for investment? ‘My strong view and my experience is that money alone won’t solve the problem. In fact, in some ways there is a danger if it is only investment going in, because if you plough investment in alone and don’t embark on reforms, what that does is ossify a system that desperately needs changing.’

Milburn suggests that reform is also necessary to fulfil the fundamentals of democratic socialism ‘which has never been about levelling down: it’s about levelling up. Such reforms redistribute opportunities that wealthier people have had – for good standards of service and high consumer choice – to people who’ve never had them. We must remember that public services exist to serve, and have to earn public confidence, not just assume it.’

If such reforms will lead to greater redistribution and opportunities, why is there such opposition? ‘In my view, the trades unions are lagging behind and need to catch up. Otherwise they will render themselves irrelevant, and I think that would be retrograde, as the country needs strong trades unions. Over recent years some in the union movement, not all, seem to be setting their face against change. We’ve had debates at Labour party conference, such as over PFI or foundation hospitals, when the trades unions have been in one position, the constituents and delegates in another, and the trades unions have won by dint of a block vote, not by winning the argument.’

If the trades unions have not won the argument, is Milburn confident that New Labour has won over the party, or does it still face the same obstacles it did in 1994, unable to penetrate the soul of the party? ‘I think the party has changed fundamentally but the issue for me is how to transform New Labour from a strand of the Labour party to a movement that transforms the party itself. You only have to look across the Atlantic to see what happens when a progressive party fails to put down lasting roots.’

Does this mean, then, that after a record six-and-a-half years in government, the Labour party is struggling to renew itself? What can it do to ensure longevity in the face of a galvanised opposition and a hostile media? ‘I think the Big Conversation exercise provides us with an opportunity to look forward and develop an agenda focused on the future – and politics only works if you’ve got competing futures. Most politics is fought day-to-day and can feel like hand-to-hand combat – but what the conversation will do is seek to identify the big challenges facing the country and give people the opportunity to help shape policy in a way that hasn’t always been possible and is rare in politics.’

Milburn also suggests that one path to renewing ourselves is reinvigorating our purpose and reason for being as a party, ‘We have to be very clear about what our purpose is, and our purpose is social justice, a traditional Labour end. We exist to try and make the world a fairer place. However, to achieve these ends we have to be radical on means.’

Milburn believes that greater choice and diversity in public services is a way of ensuring a fairer society, though ‘my view is to move further and faster’. If the old politics was about redistribution of economic benefits and the reality that there are limits to what can be distributed without creating dependency, then Milburn views the modern challenge as ‘how you redistribute opportunities in society so that people can realise their own aspirations for progress – we won by being the party of aspiration and we will only go on winning if we remain so. We are there to create ladders out of adversity.’

The consensus seems to be, however, that the government has lost momentum in its second term and was too often caught on the defensive. Is this a view Milburn shares? ‘To be blunt, yes, I think we lost momentum and we have got to regain it. The government has to do two things – first of all, to be clear about purpose and, second, to be radical about means. I am concerned that the gap between politics and the public has got wider. It tends to be poorer people who give up voting, which makes the middle-class vote disproportionately important because they tend to vote. The challenge now is to find new ways of reconnecting politics with the public and inventing new bonds of community.’

Milburn stresses that at times government has given the impression that it can solve problems alone, when what is needed is an alliance between the government and communities, ‘as when you empower people in that way, turnout rises, engagement increases and politics become relevant again’.

His own personal experience backs up his conviction on this. ‘I grew up on a council estate in County Durham and it was the council and not my family who decided the colour of my front door. I didn’t like it very much. Since then I have believed one thing: that it should be my choice and nobody else should dictate the course of my life.’

So, instead of just being consulted on the running of their estate, residents should actually run those estates for themselves, fulfilling Labour’s values of self-empowerment whilst at the same time ‘forging a radical new relationship between citizen and state. Just as we are devolving powers in public services so we should devolve political power to local communities.’
Alongside this debate, there is also a more practical test for the government: how to adapt to a new Conservative leader and a newly invigorated Tory party. It is a challenge Milburn relishes: ‘I think Michael Howard’s good for the Labour party, as politics only works when there are competing futures. It is actually good for the party to have more competition.’

Does he think, then, that Howard will force Labour to ‘up its game’? ‘It will put the party on its mettle and the complacency that has crept in over recent years will have to disappear – if people want a Tory government they can see what one really looks like and it isn’t a pretty sight.’
Looking ahead, Milburn is under no illusion that the government faces an easy ride into the next election. The main challenges are ‘how you get the relationship right between state and citizen, how you open doors, provide more opportunities to people who haven’t previously had them so that more people can fairly share in rising economic prosperity. The last thing we should do is just sleepwalk towards a general election where we defend our record and the Tories set out an agenda for the future.’

But he is confident the government and the party will not fall into this trap. As long as a new form of communication can be developed with the public, the role of the media, which ‘works only on the basis of conflict, on black and white’ can be countered by local political activity. He says that what happpens locally will become more important, and ‘Labour party members become critical, as only people in the community can converse with the community. It is our job as MPs, cabinet ministers, councillors, activists or members to have this conversation with people.’

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Jennifer Gerber

is deputy director of Progress

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