From Council Estate to Cabinet - An Interview with Alan Milburn

From Council Estate to Cabinet - An Interview with Alan Milburn - Alan Milburn sitting in office

Alan Milburn admits that he ‘got lucky’ in finding his way to Lancaster University from one of the most deprived comprehensives in Newcastle, which set him on the path to a top job in the Labour Cabinet.  He is convinced fewer doors are open to disadvantaged teenagers as he was - and he believes that is wrong.

The social mobility tsar, and former Health Secretary in the Labour government, finds it difficult to imagine how he could have made the leap from being a 16-year-old tearaway with poor O levels, to his current position, without what he gained at Lancaster University. He says: “Lancaster University was my foundation for the whole of my working life and career.  The skills I learned there - of being rigorous, analytical and understanding how to make a judgement call - were important in my political life, and still are in the work I do today in child poverty and social mobility.”

The former Labour MP for Darlington (1992 to 2010) currently chairs the European Advisory Board for Bridgepoint (a private equity group) and runs his own consultancy, advising governments worldwide. He is also involved in a variety of charitable projects as diverse as working with Tony Blair in Africa, to acting as a trustee for Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

A Lucky Break

The first part of Alan’s own lucky break happened when his mother - who had brought him up on her own on a council estate in County Durham - married when her son was 16 and moved to North Yorkshire.  Suddenly the teenager was dragged away from a future suggested for him by his low-aspiring school as a Social Security administrator, and into the high-achieving Stokesley Comprehensive. For the first time he began to consider university as both desirable and attainable.

Equipped with a fist full of A levels that would have got him to Oxbridge, he ignored his teachers and picked Lancaster for the attractiveness of the course it offered - another lucky break. He was the first member of his family ever to go to university. He set out to study English, but changed to History, with a then-available option to structure part of his course for himself, in his case in the form of a dissertation on the American Revolution.

”It was fantastic for me,” he says. “I came away blessed with having learned about research techniques, how to study independently and how to develop a critical mind.”

The young Alan threw himself into his studies and mentions his supervisor Robert Bliss ("a big bear of an American”) and Professor of History, Eric Evans as being particularly inspirational. Alan was delighted to see the latter when he was awarded an honorary degree by Lancaster in 2000.  The degree certificate hangs prominently on the wall of his study.

Life outside his studies was partly moulded by the fact that he arrived at university with a girlfriend, who was doing her teacher training near Preston.  So although he was in Pendle College, he never lived on campus (which he now regrets) but lived with her in Morecambe and in Galgate, where they spent many hours at The Plough by the canal.

Many of their friends were mature students who lived off campus.  Alan also played squash, but surprisingly did not participate in student politics, which he found a “turn off”, because he was a young man who preferred to get things done and see results.

A Life in Politics

Following his graduation with a 2.1 degree, he went to Newcastle University to do a PhD, but did not complete it because he became “ensnared” by left-wing politics.  He ran a radical bookshop, became active in the Trade Union movement and took a leading role in a campaign to save Sunderland’s shipbuilding industry. He eventually won the Darlington seat next to Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency in 1992 and was immediately identified as one of the Labour party’s modernisers.

He went on to serve within the UK Government as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Health (1999 and 2003 ) and as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, before his unexpected resignation from party politics in 2010, to ‘spend more time with his family’. As he says: “I loved my time in politics, but I did 18 years of it and I knew that it was my time to go.  I did not want to be in Opposition again and I am now of an age when I can choose.”

His time in politics has been marked by his energetic commitment to Tony Blair’s Modernisation agenda, particularly during his time as Secretary of State for Health, when he was responsible for pushing through hundreds of PFI schemes.

His more recent focus has been on social mobility. In 2009, Alan Milburn chaired a governmental commission, the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. Its report recommended improvements in social mobility by acting at every life stage - school, university, internship and recruitment. This work continues as chair of the newly created Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty.

University for All

Alan’s own 21-year-old son is at Goldsmiths in London, studying politics and he marvels at the benefits he sees his son receiving through his university education, which mirror his own transformation. But he worries that the doors which opened to him as a disadvantaged teenager by taking up a place at Lancaster, are becoming scarcer for today’s young.

“It is obvious that the top jobs in the UK come about via a well-travelled route from affluence, through private school and Oxbridge,” he says. “ I got very very lucky in my life in where I ended up, in a journey from council estate to Cabinet. It is far more difficult today. The young people have talent, but the opportunities to move forward are not as well distributed in society as they should be - or as they were.  That is wrong.

“I just want to do what little I can to make sure that university education is open to all young people to develop their talents, whatever their social or economic background.”