Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Brown should turn to Mr Upwardly-Mobile

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, Saturday 15 December


There are times in politics when governments become so immersed in difficulties that even what might once have been seen as “good news” stories start to get lost in the mix.

Besieged by accusations of sleaze, incompetence and lack of vision, Gordon Brown has only one real option – to try and get on with the serious business of governing.

And make no mistake, the government has been doing some serious things in the past week. The Children’s Plan unveiled on Monday is a case in point.

It set out a vision for schools as centres for child welfare that goes far beyond their traditional teaching role, while among other things, there will also be £200m for extra childcare provision in deprived areas.

In newspapers interviews this week and in his appearance before the Liaison Committee of MPs on Thursday, the Prime Minister sought to re-emphasise the seriousness of purpose he was once known for.

Once again, though, the focus of attention has been on the negative, and Mr Brown’s apparent indecision over whether he would sign the European Treaty.

Not so long ago, a Prime Minister who was prepared to put an appointment with MPs before a photocall with other European leaders might have been applauded for his pains.

Instead, he was branded “gutless” by the Tories for not having attended the original Treaty signing – possibly a case of damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

But despite the media focus of recent weeks, it is not sleaze, nor incompetence, nor even signing the European Treaty which, in my view, has been the real scandal of the New Labour years.

It is, as I have said more than once before, the fact that a government which came into office to help “the many not the few” has managed to preside over an increase in inequality.

This week’s report by the Sutton Trust provided further hard evidence of this catastrophic policy failure for a party of the centre-left.

It found that social mobility in Britain has not improved for more than 30 years, leaving bright children from poorer families increasingly at risk of being overtaken by less able youngsters from wealthy ones.

Of course, it is not all Labour’s fault. The real emergence of a socially-excluded British underclass occurred under Margaret Thatcher as a result of the mass unemployment of the early 1980s.

Whatever else she achieved, the social divisions of the Thatcher era remain among her most enduring legacies.

But by the same token, New Labour’s failure over the course of ten years to address the resulting inequalities must go down as one of the biggest blots on its own historical record.

It is proof, if ever it were needed, that the role of New Labour has essentially been to perpetuate the Thatcherite settlement rather than challenge or overturn it.

This week’s report found that just 10pc of young people from the poorest fifth of households gained a university degree in 2002, compared to 44pc from the richest fifth of the population.

Some will point to the demise of the grammar schools as a factor in preventing children moving out of deprived backgrounds, and they may well have a point.

Others will blame the astronomical increase in house prices over the past 30 years which have left the nation increasingly divided between those who own such assets and those who do not.

Either way, the upside for Labour is that there is a challenge here for Gordon Brown which, if he can grasp it, might just give his government the moral purpose it currently lacks, and a way out of its current political malaise.

There is also, if Mr Brown’s pride will permit, an old adversary who could help in that task – Darlington MP Alan Milburn, Labour’s Mr Upward Social Mobility himself in more ways than one.

The former health secretary famously grew up, the child of a single mother, on a council estate in a remote ex-mining town in County Durham.

Yet he himself has stated that he could not now imagine anyone from such a background as his reaching the Cabinet.

He is also, as far as this issue is concerned, Labour’s prophetic voice crying in the wilderness, having first warned about the looming problem as long ago as 2003.

Back then he wrote: “We should aim to reverse the slowing down of social mobility of recent decades. If these trends continue, Britain will be in danger of grinding socially to a halt.

"Getting Britain socially moving demands a new front in the battle for equal life chances. The most substantial inequalities are not simply between income groups but between those who own shares, pensions and housing and those who rely solely on wages or benefits.”

When Mr Milburn wrote those words, it was designed as a possible prospectus for the third term, a call to arms for Labour to be more, not less radical in its thinking

It didn’t work out that way. Although he did come back briefly to help run the election campaign, Mr Milburn along with most of his ideas ended up being marginalised.

Would Mr Brown now pick up the phone and ask Mr Milburn to join his Cabinet line-up? I don’t know, but it would certainly strengthen what is commonly seen as a rather lacklustre team.

Would Mr Milburn, for that matter, ever want to work again with Mr Brown? I don’t know the answer to that either.

I do know, however, that the last time I spoke to Mr Milburn, he was reading Giles Radice’s “Friends and Rivals,” a cautionary tale about three men whose rivalry prevented them working effectively together.

And as the Tories used to say in the days when they regularly won elections, surely now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the party?

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