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1 June 2012updated 26 Sep 2015 6:47pm

Alan Milburn on social mobility and inequality

The government's social mobility adviser tells me why he is an optimist.

By George Eaton

This morning I interviewed former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn, whose important government report on social mobility (Fair Access to Professional Careers) was published earlier this week. The full interview will appear in next week’s magazine but here’s a taster for Staggers readers.

Nick Clegg, who has made increasing social mobility his defining mission in government, recently suggested that greater mobility, not lower income inequality, should be 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 (see graph). This is hardly surprising. As Ed Miliband observed in a recent speech on the subject, “It’s harder to climb the ladder when the rungs are further apart.”

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 replied. “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.” But he conceded that he was “sailing against some pretty strong headwinds.” Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has forecast that by 2015 the number of children in absolute poverty will have risen by 500,000 to 3 million.

In spite of this, Milburn remains hopeful of progress. “There are two resons to be optimistic: one is political, the other is economic. The political reason to be optimistic is the heightened awareness and concern about inequality as a consequence of the global financial crisis.”

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He added: “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 for optimism, he said, was that “we’re going to see a big growth of professionalised employment in the next ten years. 80 per cent of new jobs are going to be professionalised, that creates an opening for a social mobility dividend.”

“The question is: who gets the jobs? What is government going to do to open those doors?” It is that question which Milburn, who will publish two further reports on social mobility – one examining the contribution of universities, and the other assessing the government’s strategy on tackling child poverty –