Alan Milburn is the Chair of the Social Mobility Foundation, and served in the Cabinet under Labour governments between 1998 and 2010.
Playing to the audience is what happens in a political leadership campaign. But from next week, Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will leave the warmth of the ideological comfort blanket for the cold reality of an unprecedented succession of crises: inflationary pressures and a cost of living crisis not seen since the 1970s, an imploding NHS, collapsing infrastructure, a climate emergency, the invasion of Ukraine, globalisation in retreat and widening inequality. Any of these would test even seasoned leaders. Together, this collision of crises calls for bold strokes and innovative leadership.
It will need the next Prime Minister to look beyond their Party membership’s immediate ideological passions and focus not just on short term responses to each crisis but a long-term agenda for change in the UK.
At its heart should lie what both Truss and Sunak have lauded as the essence of conservatism: rekindling social mobility and rewarding aspiration. In fact, both are the subject of cross-party support. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the nationalist parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are broadly on the same page.
That should create an opportunity to make progress in addressing Britain’s decades-long declining levels of social mobility. Doing so, however, will require a shared new determination to tackle the root causes of the problem. When today the attainment gap in education has grown to its largest point in 20 years, it should be obvious that new approaches are needed. The gap means barely one in eight youngsters from low-income backgrounds go on to become high income earners as adults. It should be obvious that new approaches are needed.
The starting point is to transition ‘levelling up’ from a convenient political slogan into a suite of practical policies designed to close the geographical divide that scars our country. The Johnsonian focus on addressing place-based inequality through new capital investment – new roads, railways, green projects, and the like – should be accompanied by a new recognition that better schools and skills, jobs and careers hold the key to unlocking levelling up.
Reforming education is the lever that can address not just spatial disadvantage but social inequality. Without it, the ambition politicians have for greater inter-generational fairness will remain a pipedream. Setting education spending well below inflation and not prioritising education recovery in schools is a false economy. Countries around the world are investing significantly in education. If we do not do the same, we’re simply storing up further problems for the future and will see higher levels of social inequality and lower levels of economic growth.
It is time to make education a political priority once again. A new long-term plan is needed – accompanied by appropriate investment – across the whole of the UK’s education and skills system, much like the ten-year plan for the NHS I published two decades ago. Such a Plan should aim to tackle the education emergency that has allowed those from low-income backgrounds to fall further behind during the pandemic compared to their peers. This is not just a shocking injustice – the vast waste of human potential places the UK at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.
Nowhere is this truer than in the emerging net zero economy, estimated by the London School of Economics to be worth £1 trillion in the UK alone. It can be the source of the UK’s future economic growth and prosperity. As the UK faces a cost-of-living crisis that has seen energy prices soar to their highest on record, the transition to a net-zero economy to end the over reliance on gas has never been more important.
The transition to net zero also presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to level the playing field by creating a raft of new jobs in the places that need them most. Yet ‘green jobs’ are at risk of becoming the preserve of people from a higher socioeconomic background. Research from the Social Mobility Foundation, which I chair, suggests that these roles are a ‘closed shop’ locking out those from poorer areas and backgrounds, even when they have the aptitude and ambition to succeed. We simply cannot afford to shut out the innovators and pioneers of the future simply because of what their parents did, where they were born or what school they attended.
The new Prime Minister should focus on how education reform can level this playing field and in the process give the UK the skills we need to become a powerhouse in the new net zero economy. That is the leadership our country needs.