Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Miliband-Milburn dream-team

Promoting both economic and social mobility together is what Labour is for

I want you to imagine that Ed Miliband and Alan Milburn get together and ‘father’ a policy programme. Stop screaming – I think I am onto something. What we need from a new Labour leader is a commitment to both the economic mobility championed by our former leader and the social mobility championed by the former health secretary. A fusion of these two things will make a reality of that bit of our party card which says we will ‘create for each of us the means to realise our true potential’.

This is partly covered by the shorthand term ‘aspiration’. There is a consensus that there was not enough of it shown in our 2015 policy programme even if John Prescott suggests that no one really understands what it means. What it means, John, is that where you start should not determine where you end up. It means the son of a railwayman who fails his 11 plus has the rungs of a ladder to enable him to get an education courtesy of the trade union movement at Ruskin College and the contacts and opportunities to rise to become deputy prime minister. Liz Kendall calls it ‘giving everyone an equal chance to succeed’ and Labour should ensure that those ‘rungs’ are there for everyone.

One of Kendall’s strongest moments in the campaign so far was in her first interview when she challenged Andrew Neil. ‘Why will you always do well?’ she asked – and got an answer! It is because of a good education, a good job, skills, knowledge and contacts, choices and chances. Instead of explaining and bemoaning why a poor background prevents someone getting on – and even criticising those who have – we need to act to change those odds for everyone.

We have got some experience in government of doing this. Our education policy was relentlessly focused from 1997 on raising the standards of literacy and numeracy for primary pupils to ensure that they could access the opportunities of secondary school. I am proud that we saw the biggest improvements in the most challenged schools, because we must never accept lower standards for those who need high standards the most.

Even at that time of relative ‘plenty’ in public spending, we introduced tuition fees. Our argument was that proper funding for teaching in universities which we maintained, unlike the Tory-led coalition, should not come at the expense of early years. We also argued that the real determinant of whether a young person even applied to university was whether they got the chance of taking and succeeding in the right A levels.

That is why Kendall is right to say that with limited resources the priority must be to give all children the first rung on the ladder to educational achievement. That means renewed Sure Start, but it also means personalised programmes for those at risk of falling behind. It means ensuring that all children get what I pushed and paid to ensure mine got: gifted and talented programmes; music and sport; ‘soft skills’ gained from being able to meet a wide range of inspiring people. Remember, the founding idea of the academy programme was to enlist not just the money of sponsors, but also their social capital and influence for the sake of some of our most challenged schools. This is far more important than obsessing about school structures and we should be thinking about how to reinvigorate this idea.

But a focus on social mobility alone will not be enough to ensure everyone is able to reach their full potential. There was an interesting addition to the Neil answer when Kendall said, ‘and you’ve been able to put some money aside’. People become trapped and limited by economic circumstances as well as social ones. Low income and the related inability to build up assets restricts people’s life chances too. In his self-deprecating and perceptive speech to parliament from the backbenches recently, Miliband was right to argue that inequality harms economic growth and social mobility. For too many the way our economy works feels like running up the down escalator. And he was right, as our leader, to argue that economic inequality cannot just be put right through redistribution. While this might promote some equality of outcomes, it does not radically redistribute opportunity within society, which should surely be our aim.

It may not have been the snappiest label, but the principle of predistribution was exactly right. A welfare system which keeps people in touch with work; affordable homes to rent or buy; jobs which pay fairly and the skills to get them are key elements of economic mobility. But in addition we need to worry about asset inequality too. Neil is protected by the savings he has built up. My sons will be able to do postgraduate courses because I will fund them – a much bigger hurdle than tuition fees for first degrees. Without assets, your choices are closed down and your life can be totally thrown off course by illness or unemployment. That is why we were right to introduce the child trust fund and the Savings Gateway while in government. Support from government to enable people to build up savings is liberating. The fact that the Tories scrapped both tells us how shallow their view of aspiration and security is.

A future Labour leader must focus on the fundamental issues which will really liberate people to reach their full potential. This is right for individuals, but it is also the only way to give people hope and power in a rapidly changing modern global economy. Society will be unstable while some feel that they have no stake or future. We cannot compete internationally without ensuring the fullest possible contribution from all to improve our national productivity. Promoting economic and social mobility empowers individuals and builds a stable and prosperous country. The first job of the new leader should be to sit Miliband and Milburn down. Together they can address Britain’s biggest problems and Labour’s biggest passion.


Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary and a contributing editor to Progress


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Jacqui Smith

is a former home secretary and writes the Monday Politics column for Progress


  • I may be completely wrong, but I seem to have got the impression that Milburn is a neoliberal, who started off the privatisation of the NHS (with a bit of conflict of interest thrown in for quite a lot of the advocates of that policy, though I say nothing in that respect about him personally). Perhaps, somebody could enlighten me, please.

  • I don’t get it.

    I really don’t get it.

    How can it be that one whose leadership skills, language and defeat can be part of an alleged “dream team” focusing on improving upwards social mobility?

    Where was Miliband’s stance on improving social mobility when the Country needed it as we built-up to an election?

    I am sorry – no, don’t apologise – but, I feel his has more to do with keeping a “politician” active rather than inactive – as he, like Milburn – stems from privileged background.

    Don’t you just get tired of politicians trying to pull the wool over our eyes?

    And, we pay them handsomely for doing so!!!

  • This is the problem with labeling people with boo-words – it shuts you off to everything they say, regardless of how much value it has. It’s a very childish way of doing politics.

  • And I was replying to your implication. Whether or not he is some nebulous boo-word thrown about in the Labour Party to write off what someone’s said regardless of its wisdom doesn’t bear much relevance to their diagnosis of social mobility (especially given it’s a topic ‘neoliberalism’ isn’t much concerned with).

    As it goes, taking the definition of neoliberal to mean someone who believes the private sector always knows best and the public sector has no role to play – no, I doubt he would qualify as one.

  • The only thing wrong with Ed Miliband is that he managed to become the leader instead of leaving it to a better man, his older brother. It is possible, and even I can see it, that, working with Alan Milburn, he could devise a policy to assist the process of social mobility which has stalled in the last 20 years. I am part of the reason for it stalling as I benefited from the social mobility of the 1960 – 80 and went from a working class clerk in the City of Coventry to a graduate working for IBM, over a period of 10 hard years of night classes and complete week-ends preparing and writing essays. Having got there I helped my children achieve even better outcomes and they are determined to do the same for their children. The question is how to help the current generation who are up against legal immigrants with better educations and prepared to work for what even I would consider starvation wages.

  • Ok, Norfolk29, I do agree that there is hope for Ed Miliband yet – maybe he can develop some backbone by working on a social mobility project. But, he’s going to have to start engaging with real folk in order to really show his “people” listening skills. I feel that being this different to the norm, is something that politicians will always suffer with.

    About your comments referring to David Miliband being the “better man”, I became fed-up with this nonsense so long ago that I may feel it is an insult to even respond. However, I will. Labour leadership always needed a “people” person – or, at least a leader who perceived to be this type of person. David Miliband is bad at this – probably even worse – than his brother.

    Also, David was always too close to the Iraq war – an illegal war that can now see has given the strength to the so-called ISIL – as the war created instability in the region. So, to say that David Miliband was “the ideal man for the job”, so to speak, I cannot agree with.

    All this nonsense about Ed stabbing David in his back – is a childish remark to what was a leadership challenge in which both brothers entered the race knowing that they will be competing against each other. So, enough about David being this “such great guy or politician” that he would have given Labour the success It needed.

  • It seems we disagree on a number of points but agree on others. The one we agree on is to ignore the main purpose of the article which seeks to make Liz Kendall appear in any way suitable as Labour leader. I agree that the Iraq way poisoned the relationship between Labour and many of its supporters. We, the members, should have known that George W Bush would not be able to handle sweeping out a Bar after a rowdy night, never mind a complete remake of an ancient civilisation. David Miliband was a junior member of Blair’s cabinet at the time and went with the flow. He should be forgiven, which is more than can be said for Blair.

  • Norfolk29, I do agree with your analysis of the contestants in this leadership battle… or race.

    But, don’t you agree with me that politics – as does its potential leaders – need to move forward beyond the under current of those who “use to be” and project a new and refreshing dynamic approach to reflect the mood for “change” that the public desperately seek?

    Also, do you also agree with me that both Miliband and Milburn have an opportunity to show how bold, productive and progressive they can be by holding a televised ‘social mobility” event that incorporates “ordinary” people to both highlight policy failings… but also express a desperate will and determination to improve their own social mobility?
    Surely, this is the only way that “effective” policies can be developed by engaging with the diversity of minds and experiences in life?

    Let us not forget that social mobility is not just about Me or You – it’s about who we can positively influence towards developing the mind-sets and skills – even the harnessing talent – amid whatever background one stems from.

    Isn’t this – or shouldn’t this – be the whole purpose of Labour leadership – to understand such failings and challenges amid austerity and to develop BEST policies that will equip people to turn their lives around?

  • Can we stop debating the issues of 2010 and get back to 2015? Whether Milburn and Miliband are the ideal partnership is neither here nor there. The point of the article (which I agree with) is that the Labour Party has to put a new proposition to the voters.

    The 1997 manifesto rehashed won’t work; neither will the 1983 manifesto. What we said in 2015 did not resonate with anybody much – this was not because we said bad things; more because we simply did not have anything much new to say. UKIP did; the SNP did; and the Tories simply held on to their traditional vote.

    Labour has set the agenda for politics in the past and it is high time we accepted responsibility for doing it again. My blog – The Need to Change – tries to set out why this new agenda is vital and what some of its components might be.

  • And so Miliband can complete his imitation of Iain Duncan Smith’s career by going from disastrous party leader to heading up a think tank focusing on one of the issues most toxic to his party’s chances to serve as Secretary of State for Social Mobility?

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