Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Opening up shop

Breaking the social mobility deadlock requires targeted action to open
up the professions and unleash aspiration, says Alan Milburn

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In July, I launched Unleashing Aspiration, the Panel on Fair Access report on how we could provide new opportunities to an even wider pool of talent. The response to that report has convinced me that social mobility should be the battleground on which New Labour fights the next election. Of course, the economy will remain central to the election outcome. But we cannot allow the contest to become simply one about who can manage Britain best – instead we have to make it about who can change Britain best.

Unleashing Aspiration focuses on the UK’s professions. One in three jobs today are professional or managerial, but by 2020 we may need seven million new professionals. That presents a great opportunity. The generation of the late 1950s, of which I’m part, were the beneficiaries of a mobility in society that came about because of a change in the economy – the professionalisation of jobs. I grew up on a council estate and I was lucky enough to end up in the cabinet.

But a more fluid society did not just emerge by chance. It came about because of a big policy choice. Like millions of others, I felt the benefit of that great postwar Labour government: full employment, universal education, a new welfare state. Likewise, providing we make the right policy choices today, the forthcoming expansion in professional jobs can create a second great wave of social mobility. That is why my panel recommended it should be the top social policy priority for this and future governments.

There are pressing reasons for doing so. Despite the good progress Labour has made to tackle disadvantage, the glass ceiling in our country has been raised but not yet broken. The gender pay gap has narrowed but the top professional jobs still tend to go to men, not women. Three in four judges and one in two senior civil servants still come from a private school. Tomorrow’s professional is today growing up in a family richer than seven in 10 of all families in the UK.

It is not just that such elitism is unjust socially. It can no longer work economically. The UK’s future success in a globally competitive economy relies on using all of our country’s talent, not just some of it. Any vestiges of a closed shop mentality – either in the professions or in our society – need to be banished once and for all.

This is more than an issue for those at the very bottom of society. It matters to what President Clinton once famously called the ‘forgotten middle class’. If that growth in social exclusivity is not checked, it will be more and more middle-class kids, not just working-class ones, who will miss out.

It is has long been recognised that the UK is a highly unequal society in which class background still too often determines life chances. The desire to increase social mobility cannot be a substitute for the desire for a more equal society. That is why, despite the obvious challenges, the government’s focus on abolishing child poverty is so crucial. But we need a new recognition: that a closed shop mentality in our country means too many people, from middle-income as well as low-income families, encounter doors that are shut to their talents. And we need a new focus – to end the closed shop society and create in its place an aspirational society. Doing so means unleashing aspiration, not just beating poverty.

Of course, not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer – and not everyone will want to be – but those with ability and aptitude need a fair crack of the whip to realise their aspirations. And in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country, we need to go further still. We have to enter what is new territory for public policy and find new ways of systematically raising the aspirations of those youngsters and families who simply do not believe they will ever progress.

We will not create a mobile society unless we can create a level playing field of opportunity. Our approach should open up new opportunities for everyone in society, while recognising that without more targeted action some will never have the chance to seize such opportunities. It is this coalition of middle-income and low-income voters that first brought New Labour to power and that still holds the key to victory today.

Breaking the relationship between class origins and class destinations is a battle for the long term. And it requires a holistic approach. Among the panel’s recommendations, we proposed that:

  • internships should be openly advertised and made more affordable;
  • the senior civil service should collect and publish data on the socio-economic background – just like it does for gender, race and disability – of the people it employs;
  • entry to the professions should be opened up by devolving more professional functions downwards and by developing more apprenticeships, with 10,000 getting a scholarship to go to university;
  • our complex and inflexible training system should be reformed by giving individuals their own government-funded skills budgets so they can design their own training to meet their own career needs;
  • higher education should be made easier and more affordable by giving part-time students access for the first time to student loans and students studying from home ‘fee-free’ university education;
  • universities should take account of the educational and social context of applicants in deciding admissions and should publish data on the social profile of their students;
  • every child should get good careers advice to replace the inadequate Connexions service with schools controlling budgets for careers services;
  • all schools should provide extracurricular activities and private schools should share their expertise and resources with state schools;
  • where schools are failing, new schools should be brought in and parents should have a new right of redress to send their child to a better school.

Social mobility will not advance if we think it is only wealth that is unevenly distributed in our society. It is also power. 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. So where individual citizens can exercise choice and control – such as over hospitals and schools – that should be the norm. 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 the local police and health service the community should be given a bigger say through direct elections. We should move from a top-down approach to governance towards a bottom-up one that gives citizens and communities far more of a stake.

These are some of the steps towards a Britain that is genuinely socially mobile. They are all about levelling up, not down. And in each case they all require not less state, as the Conservatives mistakenly believe, or a bigger state, as others continue to advocate, but a different sort of state – one that empowers, not controls. Unlocking our country so that it is open to aspiration and effort requires a new drive to fundamentally change how power is distributed in our society. That should be our mission for a New Labour fourth term.

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Alan Milburn

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

1 comment

  • Sorry Alan, but Connexions was set up by Labour to be independent and impartial from schools. This was because schools can be biased towards 6th form and the higher educational route. Young people will not be given the freedom of choice to the alternative to school such as college, apprenticeships and training.

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