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Government action is urgently needed to make Britain more socially mobile, says Alan Milburn

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The government’s social mobility white paper published in January offered a rare moment of optimism in a time of deep pessimism. Despite the current global downturn, it reminded us that the world economy is expected to double in the next 20 years. Across the world, the middle class will treble as new markets, new industries and new jobs develop. The issue for Britain is how we can share in this future global expansion and so increase the numbers of our citizens who can aspire to a middle-class lifestyle.

Social mobility matters for three fundamental reasons. First, if social mobility is stalled, disadvantage is entrenched – with all of the consequences that has for social cohesion. It is no coincidence that countries like Australia, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands are the most socially fluid in the world – and are also among the most equal.

Second, our success in a globally competitive economy depends on unlocking the talents of all our people. The most important resource of a company or a country is no longer its raw materials, or its geographical location, but the skills of the whole workforce. What is right on ethical grounds in the 21st century is right on economic grounds too. A knowledge economy needs a mobile society.

Third, a slowing down in social mobility is not just an issue for those at the very bottom of society. It matters to what President Clinton famously called the ‘forgotten middle class’. If the aspirations that most hardworking families have for themselves, their children and their communities are thwarted, then social responsibility and individual endeavour are both undermined. That is why it is fatuous to claim that efforts to get social mobility moving are a return to class war. It is the reverse of that: breaking down social divisions by ensuring that people, regardless of their background, get a fair crack of the whip when it comes to realising their potential and talent.

I belong to the most socially mobile generation this country has ever seen. I was lucky to be born into a good family, a strong community and a society that was moving from rigidness to openness. The postwar Labour government’s towering achievements – full employment, universal education, a new welfare state – brought new opportunities to millions of people of my generation.

In the decades since, birth, not worth, has become more and more a key determinant of life chances. What seems to have happened is that as prosperity has spread to more people, those without the skills – both hard skills enshrined in qualifications and softer communication and interpersonal skills – needed to cash in on the opportunities available in a society like our own have fallen further behind.

Labour’s efforts over the last 11 years have begun to reverse that decades-long widening of inequality. Of course, the very wealthiest have continued to get even wealthier but the bottom 20 per cent of the population have seen their incomes grow faster than the top 20 per cent. Today, although social mobility remains at a low level in the UK compared to many other nations, its long-running decline has bottomed out. But here we have to be frank. The glass ceiling has been raised but it has not yet been broken.

Yet we know from evidence across the globe what makes for a more upwardly mobile society: an economic policy that prioritises high skills and quality jobs; a welfare system that encourages work, not dependence; early years education that is comprehensive and high quality; schools that have rising standards; learning that is for life; families that are supported; communities that are empowered; and individuals that own assets and feel they have a real stake in society.

Just as government action in the 1940s helped usher in that first great wave of upward social mobility, so government action now is needed to get Britain moving again socially. With 90 per cent fewer unskilled jobs and 50 per cent more professional jobs expected in Britain by 2020, our future success depends on unlocking the talents of all our people.

But today, of our country’s top barristers, seven in 10 went to private schools compared to just one in 10 who went to state comprehensives. Despite the best efforts of many professional bodies, a similar pattern affects careers in medicine, the senior civil service and the senior ranks of the armed services as well as those in the media, the arts and academia. Financial obstacles, cultural barriers, recruitment practices and scholarship and internship shortages all contribute to narrowing the recruitment base of these key – and growing – professions.

It cannot be right that bright young people find themselves unable to get on the professional career ladder simply for these sorts of reasons. And the professions themselves need access to the widest possible pool of talent. That is why Gordon Brown has asked me to chair a panel looking at what more needs to be done so that the best people, regardless of their backgrounds, have a fair chance when it comes to securing a professional career.

But opening more doors to a professional career is only one part of what needs to be done to make Britain a genuinely open and fair society. Social mobility will not advance if we think it is only wealth that is unevenly distributed in our society. It is also power. When you are poor you have little power. The sense of hopelessness that clouds the poorest communities in our country grows out of disempowerment. If Britain is to get moving again socially, people need to be able not just to get a job or training or childcare but also to enjoy greater control and to have a bigger say in how they lead their lives. Of course, beating crime, creating jobs and rebuilding estates can help. But I have come to believe that this cloud of despondency can only be dispelled through a modern participatory politics that allows both local communities and individual citizens to more evenly and directly share in power.

So where individual citizens can exercise choice and control – such as over health and education services – that should be the norm. And where it is less easy for individual citizens to exercise such direct control – most people are hardly in a position to choose their own police officers for instance – power should be located at the next level: in the local community. Where services are failing, communities should have the legal right to have them replaced. Where communities can directly run local services like children’s centres, estates and parks, they should be helped to do so. And in other services – most notably the local police and health services – the community should be given a bigger say by making them subject to direct election at the ballot box. Doing things to people doesn’t really work. It is doing things with them that holds the key to fighting crime, improving health and regenerating communities. So we need to move from a top-down approach to governance towards a bottom-up one that gives citizens and communities far more of a stake.

In my view, these are some of the steps towards a Britain that is genuinely socially mobile. They are all about levelling up, not down. They are all about not just beating poverty but unleashing aspiration. And in each case they all require not less state – as some mistakenly believe is what the modern world demands – but a different sort of state. One that empowers, not controls.

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Alan Milburn

is chair of the social mobility and child poverty commission and a former secretary of state for health


  • I don’t think anyone would say we are not part of the global community and global economy, warts and all. Britain looks towards other countries like Australia and Scandinavian countries in the pursuit of world’s best practice in many areas of public service and public expenditure, as Alan Milburn alludes to in his article.
    However, the unfair and discriminatory way in which Britain treats its own state pensioners who happen to live overseas could be an example of the world’s worst practice. Certainly it is not practiced in Australia, Canada or any of the EU countries.
    Around 500,000 pensioners live overseas in certain countries and their British state pensions are uprated each year, just as if they lived in Britain.
    Another 500,000 live in other countries where their British state pensions are frozen at the rate at which they are first paid, or at the date they took up residence in the overseas country.
    The unfairness comes in when you realise that all pensioners, no matter where they now live, all paid into the National Insurance Fund, which pays out all British state pensions, under exactly the same rules.
    The DWP states that it looks around the world for best practice but it doesn’t seem to have picked up the fact that we are indeed in a global economy and it is about time unfair and discriminatory policies that were developed in the 1950’s were scrapped and Britain truly joined the global community.

  • Because I chose to live out my days with my children in Australia, my pension has not increased one iota since it was first paid 18 years ago, even though I have a full contribution record. A British pensioner in Miami Beach, Marseilles, Manila or Manchester with the same contribution record is paid a fully uprated pension.
    Civil Service head Sir Gus O’Donnell claims that DWP “…evaluates new approaches and actively looks for good practice overseas” which is obviously nonsense since Britain is the only country to practise expatriate discrimination on the basis of country of residence.
    Alan Milburn suggests ‘Where services are failing, communities should have the legal right to have them replaced’ so we frozen pensioners should be empowered to have the State Pensions Directorate replaced. Fat chance when the Minister for Justice in a review of the Human Rights Act says ‘…the courts recognise that there is an area of judgment with which the judiciary will defer, on democratic grounds, to the considered opinion of the legislature or the executive’.
    So if the government decides to confiscate our uprating, most judges will go along with it, even the House of Lords. And a decision of the Lords strongly influences the European Court of Human Rights. Oh what a tangled web we weave….
    A higher priority that social mobility is true equality before the law.

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