"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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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