Social mobility and the Lib Dems: will Alan Milburn’s appointment help?

by Stephen Tall on August 16, 2010

The weekend media was full of the news of Alan Milburn’s putative return to front-line politics with his appointment to a role advising the Coalition Government on policies to promote social mobility.

Reaction to the news has been mixed. John Prescott, never one to mince his words when he can mangle them instead, spat out that Mr Milburn was a “collaborator”. Conservative blogger Iain Dale was disappointed to see the Coalition’s big tent expanding to include a former New Labour cabinet minister: “One day they might actually appoint a Conservative.”

For the Lib Dems, Simon Hughes was more amenable to the appointment: “I think we have got to be non-partisan and non-tribal about these things and if good people are willing to work for the Government, whatever their background, they should be welcomed.” (So long as they are full UK taxpayers, of course.)

And I agree with Simon. While there was always rather too much “something of the sharp elbows” about Mr Milburn in Tony Blair’s cabinet, he is a bright and interesting figure, with a strong interest in the importance of early years for promoting social mobility among those born into poorer backgrounds.

The issue of social mobility has been something of a lacuna in the Coalition’s programme for government. In the original Lib Dem / Conservative agreement, it was mentioned just once: in the context of Lord Browne’s review of university tuition fees. Even in the full text agreement, it fares little better, referenced in passing alongside the need to promote equalities.

There are already measures being put in place by the Coalition to promote social mobility – for example, the pupil premium and the cutting of income tax for the lowest paid – but these are individual measures, not a comprehensive strategy for increasing absolute measures of social mobility.

It is welcome, then, that Nick Clegg himself is personally to spearhead the new drive.

After all, it was he who made much of the statistic that Lib Dem audiences heard ad infinitum during his leadership bid and beyond that “a child born in a poor neighbourhood in Sheffield where I’m an MP will die on average 14 years before a child born in a wealthier area”. And one of Nick’s first acts as Lib Dem leader was to establish a commission to examine social mobility, chaired by chief executive of Barnardo’s Martin Narey. Social mobility is also a natural fit with Nick’s cabinet committee responsibilities, as he chairs the cabinet committee on domestic affairs.

The other primary area of Nick’s responsibilities as Deputy Prime Minister is the political reform agenda: vital stuff, about which liberals and Lib Dems care greatly. However, a lot of it is internal, process-driven work: the AV referendum, fixed-term parliamemts, Lords reform, etc.

If the Lib Dems are to prove we have made a difference to the country – that we have made the UK fairer as a direct consequence of our involvement in the Coalition – then social mobility is definitely the right issue for Nick Clegg to adopt and make his own in the next few years. And if Alan Milburn can help the Coalition achieve that, then so much the better.