Milburn: time to be optimistic

New Statesman

Social mobility has become the British political equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg all affirm the belief that class should not determine destiny. Their concern is not surprising. As the important 4 June report on social mobility by Alan Milburn, the government’s independent adviser, reminds us, Britain remains one of the most socially immobile countries in the developed world.

In the words of the former Labour cabinet minister, the UK has undergone “social engineering on a grand scale” as those from affluent backgrounds have tightened their stranglehold on the top professions – the law, politics, medicine and the media.

When I spoke to Milburn this past week, I began by asking him why social mobility had stagnated and even gone into reverse. “The primary reason is that there’s been a big change in the labour market,” he said. “We’ve seen the emergence of a knowledge-based economy in which acquiring skills and qualifications is a prerequisite to get on.” The result is an ever more entrenched class system. Milburn “grew up on a council estate and was lucky enough to end up in the cabinet”, but 35 per cent of MPs and 59 per cent of the cabinet were privately educated.

Any conversation about social mobility soon turns to education, about which Milburn speaks thoughtfully. He calls for all secondary schools to be given
a fixed target to close the gap in attainment between rich and poor, and adds that he supports free schools, “but with conditions . . . they should be targeted in the more disadvantaged areas”.

Clegg, who has made increasing social mobility his defining mission in government, recently suggested that it should replace income equality as the “ultimate goal” of progressives. Yet international evidence suggests that the latter is a prerequisite for the former. Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Canada, where income inequality is low, have far higher levels of social mobility than the US and the UK, where inequality is high.

Poverty trap

I put it to Milburn that it would prove impossible to increase social mobility at a time when the coalition’s cuts are turbocharging inequality. “You’re absolutely right on the first point,” he said. “The more child poverty you have, the less social mobility you’re going to get. Which is why it’s interesting that the government has set up a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.”

That may be so, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies has forecast that by 2015 the number of children in absolute poverty will have risen by 500,000 to three million.

Yet Milburn remains hopeful of progress. “There are two reasons to be optimistic,” he said. “The political reason to be optimistic is the heightened awareness and concern about inequality as a result of the global financial crisis. There’s a growing recognition that if you’ve got unearned wealth at the top, stagnating incomes in the middle and entrenched disadvantage at the bottom, that is not a fit basis to run a society on. The economic reason is that around 83 per cent of all new jobs that are going to be created in the next decade will be professional jobs; that creates an opening for
a social mobility dividend.”

Milburn is too shrewd to say so, but as long as the coalition remains on its present course, he must fear that this opportunity will be squandered.