Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Onwards and upwards

Ahead of tomorrow’s event – Onwards and Upwards: advancing social mobility in an age of austerity – Alan Milburn outlines what he aims to achieve as the government’s social mobility ‘tsar’.

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Social mobility has become the new holy grail of public policy. Intractable levels of social inequality have prompted politicians from across the political spectrum to pin their colours to the meritocratic mast. That’s a welcome development.

I am proud to have served in a Labour government that made such good progress towards that goal. Through policies like the minimum wage and the primacy accorded to education Labour did much to tackle disadvantage in our country. But while the glass ceiling was raised, it has not yet been broken. The long-running decline in social mobility was halted, but not reversed. The education attainment gap between rich and poor narrowed but low-ability children from wealthy families still overtake high-ability children from poor families during primary school. And the UK’s professions have actually become more, not less, socially exclusive over time.

We will not create a mobile society unless we create more of a level playing field of opportunity. The core purpose of any modern progressive government should be this. To break down barriers of entrenched privilege and vested interest. To open up avenues of advancement so they are available to all, not just some. To redistribute power and opportunity in our society.

Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg say they want to advance social mobility. Later this year I will produce the first in a series of independent annual reports to parliament assessing whether what the government does, not just what it says, is helping or hindering the prospect of Britain becoming a more mobile society. I will be looking to see whether this government explicitly commits to making social mobility its top social policy priority. I will want to see a clear strategy for achieving inter-generational improvement in life chances that is, by necessity, long term alongside policies for action and investment that are producing progress in the shorter term. I will assess, too, the policy and practice of businesses and institutions that can make such an important contribution to improving and equalising life chances. This year I will be looking in particular at the policy and practice of universities for evidence that they are doing more to open their doors to the widest possible cohort of talent in our country.

Of course no single organisation or lever can make Britain more socially mobile. It’s far too complex an issue for that. It’s as much about family networks as it is careers advice, individual aspirations as school standards, university admission procedures as well as career development opportunities. I will be looking for progress on all these fronts.

One thing is certain: modern Britain can’t work if it harbours a closed shop mentality. Too many of our institutions still ascribe to the old assumption that progress can be achieved on the basis of a limited pool of talent having access to a limited set of opportunities. 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 need to be banished once and for all.


Photo: amateur_photo_bore

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Alan Milburn

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


  • The problem is that this government is clearly working to eliminate social mobility. Almost every policy of theirs restricts social mobility – tripling tuition fees, scrapping EMA, scrapping BSF, destroying public services so that those born in poverty have a much-reduced chance of getting out of it. This is also the most dishonest and deceptive government – whereas Thatcher was at least partially honest about her reactionary agenda, Cameron claims to revere the NHS while he dismantles it, claims to improve education while attacking it, claims to make public services better while destroying them. There lies the problem with Alan Milburn in his new role – he will be absorbed into Cameron’s agenda of deception and posturing. Cameron will no doubt flatter and praise Milburn’s reports and declare what a great job he is doing, but the only net effect will be that Cameron will crow and point to Milburn as proof of his fake commitment to social mobility, as he destroys public services and damages the economy and ensures that the only form of upward social mobility will be the path from millionaire to multi-millionaire.

  • Social Mobility is a giant red herring. It’s the biggest myth in politics today. The truth is social mobility does not make income & wealth inequality fair. Britain is a country where to be poor (especially the working poor) is to be utterly marginalised. The bus costs £3, a coffee £4, the cinema £8, a Leeds-London train ticket £80 (actually physical mobility hardly exists for the poor). The working poor have to watch every penny, and are barred from many of our public spaces simply because they don’t have the income. Until the extreme disparities in wealth & income are tackled we will continue to live in a win-lose society, with high levels of poverty. No amount of social mobility will change that. Being poor carries a huge stigma. One thing I’ve noticed from my travels is that that stigma is not there in our more egalitarian European neighbours. The working poor in those societies get by just fine and are included in society, not marginalised like in the UK.

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