"Appeal to a broader constituency, other than your core vote". Photo: Flickr/NHS Confederation
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Alan Milburn calls on Labour to drop the "comfort blanket" of "clan politics"

The Social Mobility Commission chair and former Health Secretary on why parties should be more aspirational, how slow politics moves on broadening access, and our "impossible" child poverty target.

“I can only conclude that they do love you when you’re dead.”

Alan Milburn is mordantly questioning why so many ask him whether he would consider returning to the House of Commons. “I do find it interesting the number of people who ask me that now, which is probably less a comment about me and more a comment about the state of politics.”

And the former Labour MP – who represented Darlington from 1992 until the last election, and served as Tony Blair’s Health Secretary among other frontbench roles – certainly has a great deal to say about the state of today’s politics.

Ever since taking up his role as chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2012, the high-profile Blairite’s opinions on the work of our current politicians, and the Labour party in particular, often make headline news.

A recent controversial intervention from Milburn was his comment that Miliband is fighting a “pale imitation” of Labour’s 1992 campaign, which Labour lost, and his warning against avoiding “difficult changes and difficult choices” on NHS reform. He followed these comments up with a piece in the FT calling on Miliband to defend Labour’s economic record – ie. to champion the New Labour years.

All this has led to a painful past week for Labour, as it has been forced to face the previous government’s role in letting private money into the health service – at a time when it is making protecting the ‘N’ in NHS central to its election campaign.

It is fitting that I meet the former modernising minister – known for introducing the controversial NHS foundation trusts, and being behind negotiating PFI deals on hospitals – in the turbo-gloss and corporate finery of the PwC building in London Bridge. Milburn took up the position of chairman on the giant accountancy firm’s Health Industry Oversight Board in 2013.

He cuts a compact, rather modish, figure skipping through the monolithic office building, in his thick-rimmed black glasses, black-and-white Mod target cufflinks and sleek purple tie. We chat in a plush meeting room, where he has a hasty lunch of redbush tea and complimentary apple. His manner throughout is focused but easy. So New Labour.

Although I meet him before he makes his comments about Labour’s NHS policy, I find that “comfort zone” politics has clearly long been a bugbear of his, particularly regarding representation in politics.

“I don’t think a model that says ‘5 per cent of British GDP is in the agrarian economy, therefore we've got to have 5 per cent of Labour party politicians who are former agricultural workers’ is really going to work. The important thing is speaking for the country as a whole,” he says.

“This is a point about every party. Parties win when they build coalitions of support . . . You appeal to a broader constituency, other than your core vote. It’s very easy in politics, comfort blankets work in politics, because – guess what? It does what it says on the tin! – it’s dead comfortable. But it doesn't give you victory.

“And even if it gives you victory, it doesn't give you permission. So I don't think it's a good idea for any political party to be aiming for 32.8 per cent of the vote.”

Is this a reference to Ed Miliband’s notoriously unambitious “35 per cent strategy”?

Milburn nods. “And one could say on the reverse side, it might also be the Conservatives' strategy. So in one sense, they are mirror images of one another.

“Political parties that aspire to government have got to be aspirational parties . . . It's not a question of, ‘Should we choose the working-class vote or the middle-class vote?’ You should choose the vote. You should choose both. That's how you win.

He continues: “How did Margaret Thatcher construct enormous majorities? By making a deep incursion into Labour territory. How did Blair construct enormous majorities? By making deep incursions into Tory territory. Some people, in both parties, would say ‘that's a terrible thing to do, an absolute betrayal of who we are’. But it gets you the most important thing that counts in politics, which is the opportunity to change things because you're in power . . .

“You need to win the south as well as the north. You need to win in Scotland as well as in England and Wales. You need to win among middle-class voters and working-class voters. The days have gone when politics was about representing clans. You were working-class, you lived on a council estate, you voted Labour. You weren't, you owned your own home, you voted Tory. It doesn't work like that anymore. Thank the Lord for that!”

Milburn’s message to our political leaders reflects his work on social mobility. He sees improving social mobility as giving people choices in their lives, and enabling the universal ambition of giving our children “something more than we had for ourselves”. He wryly remarks it would be a “jolly good idea” if politics made it possible for people to aspire for their children to progress.

But he has another rather big ask for our politicians: honesty. He animatedly discusses how “impossible” it is for whichever party is in power to hit the 2020 target of ending child poverty.

“It seems to us impossible that the 2020 poverty target's going to be hit – and I use that word advisedly, impossible – in the context of the broad fiscal positions that each of the political parties have taken . . .

“For us, there's a gulf between the rhetoric and the reality. All political parties are pretending that 2020 is somehow going to happen. Well, they all know privately it isn't.

“No one really wants to own up to where we are. Because, from Labour's point-of-view, it's a very convenient stick with which to beat the current government: ‘You're not going to hit the 2020 target’. Err, and are you?” he arches an eyebrow. “And for the current government, it feels like a plea for ‘we're all in this together, aren't we?’ might be less salient if it says that some seem not to be in the boat, have been thrown overboard.”

Although Milburn, as chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, reserves his criticism equally for all political parties, his comments always seem to cut deeper for Labour, considering his stature as a former Labour government heavyweight. At one point he notes how unpopular his interventions can be: “The Labour party gets upset because I say an £8 minimum wage doesn't sound nearly as ambitious as perhaps it's been presented.”

His motivation to head up such a Commission comes of his own background and experience of entering parliament. He grew up in Newcastle, in what he describes as “an old mining town in the northeast of England”, on a council estate. He was educated at a comprehensive school in Cleveland before going on to read history at Lancaster University.

“It’s obviously the reason why I do this,” he tells me. “I care about it [social mobility] for an obvious reason, which is I've been very, very lucky in my life. It needn't have been like that, it could've turned out a very different way. But people shouldn't have to rely on luck . . . I genuinely want to make sure that it's possible for a kid somewhere growing up on a council estate like I was 45 years ago, turned up in the cabinet.

“But if I'm asked the question, ‘Do you think that's likely right now?’, I'd say it's much more unlikely than likely. I think that's wrong. Because I don't think talent resides in one part of society; everybody's got talent in different ways.”

Although he says there is a “sort of shared good intent” from all the major parties on improving social mobility, he gives this government a “mixed report card” on the subject, and has recently been discussing with the Commission how to keep it on the agenda as the general election campaigns threaten to drown it out.

A clear conclusion from Milburn’s council estate-to-cabinet narrative is that political parties ought to put their own houses in order if they are to credibly champion opportunity over privilege. A much-publicised report by the Commission released last August titled “Elitist Britain?” revealed just how narrow the top tiers of British society have become. For example, it found 71 per cent of senior judges, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists, and 36 per cent of the cabinet were educated at private schools.

Milburn calls the findings “shocking, but not surprising”, and has found political parties slower than every other “non-political” profession on the uptake in terms of widening access.

“All the political parties are conscious this is an issue, and politics is becoming in a sense more like every other profession, all moving in one direction. And that's regressive, not progressive,” he sighs.

“The best we can do is throw down the gauntlet to the political parties and ask the question: ‘If you think it's bad, what are going to do about it?’ I'm waiting for an answer to that.

“It's interesting in other professions, from accountancy to medicine to law, or even the media, when we've thrown down the gauntlet, is that often the non-political audience has been more responsive than the political audience. We find that when we have a pop at employers on the living wage, or say the media industry's characterised by a high degree of reliance on unpaid internships, or that it's ridiculous that top firms in the country are accrued from a handful of universities when there's over 100 of them, that tends to have an impact.”

Milburn says it would be “at least a totemic thing to do” if political parties were more representative themselves and if more politicians were to back policies such as abolishing unpaid internships. “It would send a signal,” he adds. “Modern governments don't, probably, have as much power as governments of 50 or 60 years ago . . . [But] where they do actually have real power is in playing a sort of catalytic role. They can champion things and make things happen, enable things. Get the country behind a cause.”

And Milburn will be playing such a role, albeit from outside the immediate political sphere. Because, besides vocal advice from the sidelines, he won’t be returning to party politics any time soon: “Absolutely, unequivocally, 100 per cent, never.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder