If not Labour, then who?

First published on Progressonline Richard Angell and Adam Harrison

‘There’s a disjunction,’ Alan Milburn tells Adam Harrison and Richard Angell, ‘between the end we’re wishing for – the eradication of child poverty – and the means that we’re prepared to deploy’

It is in the rarefied environment of the library at 61 Whitehall, a grand, galleried room on the site of Henry VIII’s former bedchamber at Whitehall Palace, that we meet former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn, now dubbed the coalition government’s ‘social mobility tsar’.

The chair of the social mobility and child poverty commission begins speaking at the Resolution Foundation’s launch of its new report on escaping low pay by joking that ‘as a historian I know what happened to the tsars’ – but in interview with us in the margins of this important event it is clear that he less concerned for his own head than for the millions of Britons whose life-chances are slipping out of reach. The setting may be historic but the matter at hand is very current, and very urgent.

Some of today’s problems of low pay and frozen social mobility reach back into recent history. A Labour figure keen to understand what his party might have done better in government and learn from its record, rather than simply castigate it, Milburn is clear that Labour’s scoresheet in office was a good one: ‘there were big reductions in child poverty during that period, more people into work, the introduction of the national minimum wage – which, at the time was a huge furore’, all achieved against an inheritance from the Thatcher-Major years of ‘big increases in low pay in the 1980s and early 1990s, huge increases in child poverty in that period, which doubled.’

Nevertheless, a growing economy under Labour masked a different reality for some. ‘Too many of the jobs, in truth, that were being created were low-paid jobs, and it’s worth remembering that even at the height of the boom in the 2000s real wages were stagnating, and the only part of people’s income that were growing were tax credits.’ Rather than simply stop there in the analysis, Milburn advocates a clear, timescaled policy solution that could be agreed now. ‘The country should be transitioning to a living wage … We should make that a 10-year ambition to make sure no one in our country is earning less than the living wage … that’s a policy that Labour should look to adopt.’ The taxpayer no longer has the ‘largesse’ to compensate low-income households as it once did through tax credits, he warns.

How does this interact with Labour’s former goals on eliminating child and pensioner poverty? And, given that the Resolution Foundation reminds us that much poverty these days is experienced by those who are in work but remain ‘stuck’ in low pay, should Labour today reaffirm those pledges made by by the last government and now add to it a target to eradicate in-work poverty?

Milburn is candid, almost brutal, in his assessment. ‘None of the political parties, Labour included, have really been totally frank with the public as yet. There’s not a hope in hell that the 2020 targets we set in office are going to be met, and we ought to come clean about it … We should [set] a new ambition to eradicate child poverty, but on a different timescale, and we’ve got to do far more on in-work poverty.’

Are the policy solutions in place yet to do that? Again, a frankness of response characterises Milburn’s answer. ‘There’s a disjunction, if you like, between the end we’re wishing for – the eradication of child poverty – and the means that we’re prepared to deploy.’

Some of these means are tools that Labour, and all parties, have traditionally been reluctant to take out of the box. A national conversation about parenting is needed yet ‘politicians across the political spectrum are terrified of the nanny state charge’, Milburn says. But what he calls ‘the last great taboo in public policy’ needs to be broken. ‘We know that most parents are doing a good job, but the truth is some are not and we’ve been too reluctant to call out bad parenting, but we shouldn’t; we should absolutely call it out’. Government has an active role to play here, and, like the 10-year living wage pledge, this too should be clearly planned out over the next decade. ‘We need to focus on the early years, we need a long-term plan to ensure that, again over a period of 10 years, we can get to levels of childcare that are comparable to those in Scandinavia on grounds of affordability, quality and accessibility.’ Getting good parenting in place to make sure a child’s early years are indescribably important – the knock-on effects last a lifetime. ‘The poorest kids face a sort of triple whammy: too many of them are not school-ready aged five, too many of them are not literate or numerate aged 11, and too many don’t get five decent GCSEs aged 16.’ ‘Labour in office’ he argues, ‘managed to raise standards and narrow the education attainment gap, but you’ve got to go much further and much faster.’

Milburn welcomes the recent appointment of shadow cabinet members Gloria De Piero and Tristram Hunt to look at improving social mobility in the country – indeed, he considers social mobility to be the core of what Labour should be about as a party – ‘social mobility can become the policy glue, the philosophical glue if you like, that binds a new Labour coalition of support for the next general election.’ Unless we do this, he warns, we are ‘on the brink of becoming a permanently divided country [of] haves and have-nots’.
He goes on, ‘Labour wins when it builds a coalition of support between low-income families and middle-income families; between the south and the north; between England, Scotland, Wales. That’s when we win.’

Understanding the way the world has changed is, again, once more absolutely central to devising the right solutions. ‘Poverty today is not about the workless and workshy, it’s about families who are doing the right thing, standing on their own two feet, striding not shirking, but simply not earning enough to escape poverty. If Labour can’t make … the five million people who earn less than the living wage, mainly women, the priority and focus for attention, then the question is: who will?’

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