Interview with Alan Milburn

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 30 April 2015 in Inside Politics

With the gap between rich and poor ever widening, can politics solve the crisis of inequality?

Former Labour health secretary, the Rt Hon Alan Milburn, is a poster boy for social mobility. Brought up by a single mum on a sprawling council estate in one of the most deprived areas of Newcastle, he rose to the very top of the political establishment becoming one of Tony Blair’s most loyal aides.

Milburn sat at the Blair government’s top table, serving firstly as health minister, then as Chief Secretary to the Treasury before becoming Secretary of State for Health. He was responsible for implementing some of Labour’s most radical health reforms including the introduction of controversial PFI agreements and also of NHS foundation trusts – which were seen as Labour’s halfway house between the public and private sector and naturally left it open to ongoing accusations of privatisation by the backdoor.

His pragmatic approach to finding market solutions to social problems was unpalatable to many within his party – only recently he has been accused of being a ‘Tory collaborator’ by former party colleague John Prescott because he criticised Labour’s plans to reduce private sector involvement in the NHS – and before he left government for the second time, citing that he wanted to spend more time with his family, he had earned himself the title of being the most unpopular minister in Blair’s Cabinet. 

 "The problem is so complex... and made more complex because the old answer, which was to spend more public money, is simply not available in an age of austerity"

He says now, of the journey that took him from being a 16-year-old tearaway and educational underachiever to the very heart of government and responsible for changing the way Labour did business, that he simply ‘got lucky’. 

And it is that element of luck that Milburn, who now chairs the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, set up by the Conservative-led Coalition, wants to diminish for other children who, like him, start life with the odds stacked against them.

On the eve of what is increasingly being described as one of the most seminal general elections of our time, Milburn is happy to see the issues of inequality to the fore. 

“There’s a sort of arms race going on, particularly in Scotland, between the political parties to prove who has the strongest case on the issues of poverty and mobility and inequality, as these three things are interrelated, and that is very welcome,” he says. “It means that more attention is focused on what is the biggest social issue of the day and that is a good thing.

“For 50 years, politicians across the political spectrum have been trying to realise that post-war vision of a good society and there has been some progress but the truth is that the progress that has been made has been far too limited and taken far too long and the public have become more and more concerned. I think the financial crisis has thrown that into really sharp relief. 

“In a sense, what the global financial crisis did is it focused attention on the people at the very top and whether or not reward and effort and performance were inextricably linked and as a result of that focus, there’s a lot of anger amongst the public that they’re not. 

"My plea is to focus as much attention on those who suffer at the very bottom and to help them, as well as doing something to restrain those at the very top. I think that it’s not surprising, in a sense, that the debate is where it is which is very much at the top of the public policy agenda, where it should be.”

In November last year, just weeks after the independence referendum in which a more equal society had been core to the argument for Yes, Milburn gave a speech in Edinburgh which could only have rubbed salt in the wounds of the 45 per cent. 

He said that Scotland had already lost its place as the country with the lowest child poverty levels in the UK and he cited figures that showed between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the proportion of Scottish children in relative poverty rose from 15 per cent (150,000 children) to 19 per cent (180,000), whereas in the UK as a whole, it was flat at around 17 per cent.

He went further and said that Britain’s leading professions showed that Britain was still deeply elitist – with over 60 per cent of senior military officers, 50 per cent of Whitehall senior mandarins, 40 per cent of senior journalists, 30 per cent of Cabinet Ministers and 20 per cent of Shadow Cabinet Ministers all coming from private schools compared to 7 per cent of the population – and that Scotland was not exempt from such elitism.

“There is a risk,” he warned, “that Scotland sleepwalks into a social mobility crisis.”

“People are willing to wish the ends but they’re not willing to wish the means… we have to reconcile these two things ”

Milburn and I sit down in the office – just a short walk away from the House of Commons where he used to sit – that he now occupies within the Education Department as the independent chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and I ask him if he really believes things have got worse.

“The inequality gap has got wider and arguably, in some ways, is getting even wider. The gap between the haves and have-nots, between London and the rest of the country is becoming ever wider. The gap between wealthy, older people and poorer, young people is becoming wider. If you own your own home, you’re benefitting from lower mortgages. If you’re renting, you’re benefitting from higher rents. So the gap is intractable and it is not through lack of effort. 

"I mean, across the political spectrum, various parties in different ways, have tried to put their shoulder to the wheel and make progress and I think it would be wrong to say that there has been no progress, because then that is a shout of despair, and I personally don’t feel that, no, I feel anger and frustration, but I don’t feel despair.

“If you think about the education arena, for instance, I thought it was very interesting that Nicola Sturgeon, when she was in London, went to visit a school in Tower Hamlets. Why did she go there? Well, we’ve been having this conversation from 30 years ago and we would have said that the worst schools in the country were in London, and today they’re the best. 

"What they’ve managed to do is improve the educational attendance of the poorest children, such that children in London’s state schools do 50 per cent better than in state schools elsewhere. That didn’t happen by chance, it happened by effort and resource, and it happened because of politics. 

“Politics actually made a difference. So I think that it is possible to make a difference and to make progress but when you look at the scale of what needs to be done, it is very easy to succumb to a profound sense of pessimism, that because the problem is so big, you can’t deal with it. 

"Now, we’re in a very odd period before the election, where political parties tend to spread promises round like confetti at a wedding and it would be very easy to assume that there’s a simple solution to a complex problem, or an answer that says ‘if you get economic growth, you get social cohesion’, or ‘if you get a higher minimum wage, that deals with poverty’ or ‘if you have a low starting rate of income tax, that speeds mobility’. Well, yes, but it’s not enough, because the problem is so complex that it isn't amenable to one single bullet."

"So my plea to all of the political parties… is to come forward with detailed holistic policy solutions to what is a really complex problem, and made more complex because the old answer, which was to spend more public money, is simply not available in an age of austerity… None of the political parties yet have risen to the challenge of how, in detail, they would make social progress in an age of financial austerity.”

Milburn’s own social progress was, he says, down to having a mother that wasn’t prepared to simply accept her lot. Married at 16, she was then left as a single parent to bring her son up on a deprived housing estate in a County Durham mining town. She remarried when Alan was a teenager and he was dragged away from what he describes as a poor performing, low aspiring, comprehensive school and a future suggested for him by his teachers as an administrator in the Department of Social Security, and into the high-achieving Stokesley Comprehensive in North Yorkshire. 

The move proved transformational, not just in terms of geography but also in life chances. For the first time, Milburn saw education as a passport to ‘something better’ and ultimately, equipped with an enviable set of A-levels that would have got him to Oxbridge, he ignored his teachers’ advice and went to Lancaster instead to study English and then History. He was the first member of his family ever to go to university.

“For me, the most important factor was my mum,” he says. “She made me feel there was no limit on what was possible. She went to the theatre, we had books, there was no telly, an outside toilet, but she wanted me to do well. I don’t buy the line that people who are disadvantaged have low aspirations for their children.

“Would it be possible for a kid like me to get into the Cabinet now? Possible but tougher. We are not a classless society but our aspiration has got to be to make us one but people want the reverse of the class war. Attacking David Cameron as a toff is yesterday’s stuff. It’s about letting more people enjoy a middle-class lifestyle.

“I think you’ve got to be very careful about pitching low-income families against middle-income families. Arguably, one of the reasons that I think the debate on poverty hasn’t been winning the country is because the politicians, of whom I was one, made it into an issue for some people when it’s actually an issue for all. 

“The data that was once our enemy is now our friend. Almost half of families in this country will experience poverty at some point over a 10-year period. That’s not a minority issue. That becomes a majority issue, but you’ve got to frame the argument in the right way, and I would say that the way to frame the argument is less about endemic poverty, which of course affects some people and requires a specific policy response, and more about constant insecurity, which affects low-income and middle-income families alike. 

"What’s very interesting to me about Scotland is that everywhere else in the country there’s a debate going on which is using the language of social mobility, but that’s almost unheard of in Scotland, or at least, I don’t hear it in the same way. I hear a debate about social inequality and I hear a bit about child poverty but I don’t hear the same debate about social mobility. You see, you’ve got to do two things simultaneously if you want to make progress. 

"You’ve got to create ladders for people to move from the bottom to the middle, and you’ve got to make ladders for people to move from the middle to the top. Right now, both ladders are capped. If you look at the top, you see the most elite people in Britain, and Scotland’s no different. There are more kids from private-school backgrounds that go to the ancient universities than there are from working-class backgrounds. Thirteen per cent of kids who are on free school meals in Scotland go to a university, compared to 57 per cent of their better-off peers. 

"That’s exactly the same in England, or maybe worse, maybe better, but broadly the same. In order to crack this problem, it can’t just be about cracking it for one cohort, but it’s about creating a society where there are genuinely open doors, so that people who’ve got talent and potential get to realise it, regardless of their background. Right now, potential is capped at every level.

"I was born in 1958, and I got really lucky in my life. I grew up on a council estate and ended up in the Cabinet, and I was of that generation which was benefitting from a huge boom in social mobility. Why? Mainly because the labour market was changing. You were moving from a blue collar to a white collar jobs market that was creating a lot more opportunities for working-class kids to move up and get on in the world. 

"None of the political parties yet have risen to the challenge of how, in detail, they would make social progress in an age of financial austerity."

"However, you’ve had, over the last few decades, a different sort of change, which is the advent of a modern knowledge-based economy, where, unless you get a skill and a qualification you’re almost doomed to a world of endemic low pay and constant insecurity. So the terms of trade have changed but all too often public policy continues as if it hasn’t. 

"My plea to all of the political parties is not just to produce a wide and big plan for action where they focus on small, individual solutions but is also to look beyond the old policy advances, because we’re going to have to do something differently. Politics can give a lead and the living wage is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen, both because it’s more designed to answer today’s questions than yesterday’s, and because it began organically from employers and from NGOs, rather than simply coming from governments.

“My point is that it’s not one thing or another that you have to do; you actually have to do quite a lot of things, of which, how you grow the economy, where you grow the economy, and how you create which sort of jobs, are absolutely critical questions. Arguably, what were the big engines of social mobility in the past – the housing and labour markets, are now working against social mobility rather than working for it. 

"Take the housing market. The rate of home ownership amongst young people has halved in 20 years. Lots of jobs have been created… but too many of [them] …are dead end and low-paid. I think that the challenge for politics and for all the political parties, especially in an age of austerity is ‘how do you get beyond the old policy solutions?’ It’s not just that the cash has run out, but the old answers have run out. 

"Welfare to work, for instance, which is absolutely right in that we want any person to be off of welfare and standing on their own two feet, and policy should be designed to help them get there, but we now know that work is not a panacea. We’ve got five million people in this country earning less than the living wage and not able to escape poverty. 

"What we have now is a huge incidence of working poverty, not just workless poverty. Two thirds of poor kids are in working households, so something’s changed, and we can’t be going along with the old answer, which is welfare to work. The new answer needs to show how we’ll move people from low pay to living pay.”

In 2003, Milburn gave up his Cabinet career to spend more time with his family. It sounded like the oldest excuse in the book. 

However, he returned to government in September 2004, with the title of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and was brought back to lead the Labour Party’s campaign in the 2005 General Election, but the unsuccessful start to the campaign led to Milburn taking a back seat, with Gordon Brown – a colleague he had previously clashed with - taking a more prominent role. Milburn stood down for the second time before leaving elected politics in 2010 and pursuing a very lucrative career in the private sector.

In 2012 he was asked by Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, to take on the role of ‘social mobility tsar’ which although politically independent advises the government on how to break down social barriers for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and help people who feel they are barred from top jobs on grounds of race, religion, gender or disability. He has already said that government – both Labour and the Coalition - targets on child poverty set for 2020 will not be reached. Now that Milburn is out of frontline politics, does he think he can affect change easier from outwith?

"Whenever I walked into Number 10 Downing Street I did have a sense of ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I think that’s a relatively healthy and sane thing to have."

“It’s easier when you’re out than when you’re in. It really is, and it’s easier for two reasons. Both because you can say what you like, which is rather nice, but also because you get an opportunity to think and to talk and to meet people. I mean, I do a whole bunch of different things in my life nowadays that I wasn’t doing when I was doing one thing. Now, that doesn’t make me better or worse but all through my political life I’ve always been animated by this issue for one simple reason - I got lucky. But it shouldn’t have to rely on luck and if I ask myself the really hard question, which is, ‘is it conceivable that a child in the North East or, for that matter, a Scottish council estate, is going to end up in 30 years’ time, in the Cabinet?, if I’m honest, the answer is probably not. Never mind that it’s a social injustice, it’s a moral outrage. 

"There are lots of reasons for the lack of social mobility but one area I think politicians of all political persuasions have been loath to go into is what I call the last great taboo of public policy, which is family policy and in particular, parents. If we’re honest about it, the biggest influence on a child’s life is not their schools or their universities or their employers and certainly not their governments. It’s their parents. They have the biggest influence on a child’s life, and politics feels able to deal with all of those other issues but feels unable to talk about what is good parenting and what is bad parenting and yet we know that there is something called ‘good parenting’ and ‘bad parenting’. 

"And by the way, it’s a pretty hard job to do – being a parent. It’s not that any of this stuff is easy, but I personally think that if we’ve got a situation where we know that, on average, better off parents read more frequently to their children than parents who are less well off, with consequences for the rest of that child’s life, why would we in politics just say, ‘well, that’s got nothing to do with us’? 

"I think we’ve got to go there and it isn’t easy, but we do know that there are some things that work to support parents to become what they want to be, which is good parents, and I think public policy has a role to play there.

"There are many shocking statistics within this field, but amongst the most shocking are the proportion of kids from poorer backgrounds who are not school-ready by the age of five. School-ready is pretty basic, it’s things like using the toilet, being able to put a coat on, being able to answer a simple question or obey simple instructions. That’s pretty bad. 

"What’s the answer there? The answer is to do more to help parents and to make sure that early years services are really focused on their principal job, which is to make sure that every child, regardless of background, is ready to go to school at the age of five. 

“It’s great that in England, as well as in Scotland, more is being done to support early years and childcare services. That’s great. More money is being spent, but the question is what are we getting for the money? In Scotland, for example, do we measure what proportion of children leaving state-funded early years services are school ready by the time they start school? The answer is that we don’t. 

"Would it be possible for a kid like me to get into the Cabinet now? Possible but tougher"

"I’m not saying that really good things aren’t being done, because they are, and I welcome £100 million going into closing the educational attainment gap, I welcome the investment in early years services, but you’ve got to be very clear not just about what you’re spending, but what you’re getting for your money.

“We’ve had a lot of focus on raising standards, but precious little focus on attainment. The gap in educational attainment between poor kids and rich kids has been narrowing so slowly that it would be 30 years, in England at least, before kids on free school meals caught up with kids who are not in terms of GCSEs. And yet we know that if we get the right teachers in the right places, and if we get the right schools in the right places, that we can tackle educational disadvantage, so that’s what we’ve got to do. 

“That means doing some pretty difficult things, in my view, and in the commission’s view. It means the national pay bargain for teachers, where we pay people, regardless of what sort of school they work in, exactly the same. That’s no longer pertinent. I would want to pay people more who were good teachers to work in struggling schools. That’s really difficult, but we can’t go on lamenting inequality and then doing nothing about it. 

“All too often, what happens is that people are willing to wish the ends but they’re not willing to wish the means… we have to reconcile these two things, and that’s particularly true at a time of austerity because you just can’t spend your way out of it, you’ve got to be very precise about what’s going to give the maximum social mobility bang for the buck.

 “And this is where government, and government alone, holds the key, you can help unlock the door but whether or not people want to walk through it is back to their aspirations. 

“I’m an example of somebody who’s been able to do well, going on quite a lot of luck and presumably a little bit of ability. I was brought up by a single mum on a council estate. She wanted, like every parent wants, for me to do better than she had done but don’t ever think that just because the boy leaves Newcastle, which I haven’t, by the way, that Newcastle ever leaves the boy. It never leaves you, where you came from, and nor should it. 

"Whenever I walked into Number 10 Downing Street I did have a sense of ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I think that’s a relatively healthy and sane thing to have. If you come from a more advantaged background that brings with it all the material advantages but it also brings some of the emotional advantages of confidence, resilience and all those things. That’s why there’s this debate going on in educational circles about whether you can teach resilience and aspiration. 

“You can’t gift social mobility to people. People have got to want it, they’ve got to earn it, but they’ve also got a right to expect that if they put in effort they get a reward. My biggest worry right now is that people are working hard and are earning less than a living wage. When that happens, when people put in effort and don’t get a reward that has social consequences, like people thinking it isn’t worth it anymore. That is a terrible thing and, above all else, that’s what we’ve got to deal with.”

Would he consider a return to politics to help achieve that change?

“Absolutely not. No. Unequivocal. Any other word that would describe the word ‘no’ you can use it. Never. I did it for 18 years and I think that’s enough.” 

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