Former Labour minister Alan Milburn has been appointed to a role in advising the government on policies promoting social mobility. his role as "social mobility tsar" will involve advising the government on how to break down social barriers for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and combat social inequality.
Milburn, who previously served as Secretary of State for Health, last year chaired the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. The Panel's report in July 2009 recommended certain actions to widen access to key professions such as medicine and law, which in spite of progress remain virtually the preserve of certain social groups. As a former medical student from what might be considered a "disadvantaged" background, I am more than aware of the inequalities inherent within the system and the acute financial pressures that forced me to abandon both my studies and my otherwise achievable aspiration to practice medicine - and would welcome the findings of Milburn et al as an overdue step in the right direction.
This report set Milburn apart from most of his colleagues in the Labour Party. For all its positive social achievements, under Labour social inequalities widened. There were many Labour MPs who cared deeply about improving social mobility, but they seemed to believe that achieving progress would simply be a by-product of government policy. Consequently, it was not seen as a pressing issue and very little thought was given as to how improvements in social mobility could actually be achieved.
Perhaps because of my own experiences I saw things differently. I could see that not only was the notion of social mobility a myth, but that Labour had failed to address inequalities. My dealings with Labour minsters and MPs in relation to widening access to medicine and increasing support for medical students led me to believe that Labour was ignorant of the fact that it was actually contributing to a shocking constriction of social mobility. Because of this I was relieved at the findings of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions - not simply because of its findings (which I recognised might never be acted upon) but because it actually recognised a real problem. And it realised that action had to be taken to reverse social inequality.
There has understandably been a lot of reaction to Miburn's appointment. John Prescott, forthright and tactless as ever, labelled him "a collaborator". Andy Burnham was surprisingly judgemental towards his former colleague, alleging that he was "putting his ego and his own social mobility above the people he used to represent". Conservative blogger Iain Dale, always entertaining in his analysis, bemoaned the appointment of a Labour advisor and asked why there "are no Conservatives with the capability or talent to carry out these roles". (Answers on a postcard please.)
I have to admit that I see things differently. Simon Hughes observed that "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." This commonsense approach is what is necessary for effective government. In Alan Milburn, the coalition has at its disposal the abilities and experience of someone who chaired what was effectively a Social Mobility Commission who was determined to break down what he called the "closed shop mentality" and was critical of the Brown government's failure to implement his proposals. Milburn is not a political tribalist but a realist with the necessary passion, ideas and track record to deliver progress on increasing social mobility.
Aside from the unhelpful tribal attitudes towards Milburn's appointment, it should be pointed out that this is evidence that the government is serious about taking action. While Nick Clegg has consistently berated the unfortunate reality 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" it was not something taken up as a matter of urgency by many of his government colleagues. In fact, the orginical coalition agreement only mentioned social mobility once (in relation to the review of tuition fees).
Nick Clegg clearly realises that any genuine eradication of social inequality requires action to be taken urgently to increase social mobility. He is right to adopt it as a personal issue, and to champion liberal solutions. Clegg has already established an independent commission to examine social mobility and has committed the Liberal Democrats to providing "equality of opportunity".
Now in government, Clegg and the Lib Dems can begin to make overdue progress. Whatever his party affiliations, there can be no escaping the fact that Alan Milburn has the experience, determination and understanding to help the coalition achieve some tangible success in creating a genuinely free and fair society.