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'Collaborator' Milburn becomes coalition mobility tsar

Richard Moss | 11:57 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010

Alan MilburnAlan Milburn was never a likely winner of a popularity contest in the Labour party, but his name will certainly be mud for many members now.

The former Darlington MP's appointment as the Government's new Social Mobility Tsar has aroused the anger of some already.

Lord Prescott has labelled him a "collaborator" alongside John Hutton and Frank Field.

And leadership contender Andy Burnham called his decision "a kick in the teeth" during a visit to the North East at the weekend.

He said: "Alan Milburn is putting his ego and his own social mobility above the people he used to represent here in the North East, the very people who will be hit hardest by the ConDems' brutal cuts to public services." Ouch!

But my dealings with Mr Milburn in the past suggest he has a thick enough skin to withstand such slights.

In fact, knowing him, he'll probably quite enjoy them.

So what is he up to?

His critics would say this is about feathering his own nest, trying to breathe some afterlife into his career.

But actually social mobility is Alan Milburn's passion.

I spent a day filming with him a few years ago where he was outlining his vision of a future for the North East.

We started the day shooting outside his teenage home in Benwell in Newcastle.

It's one of the poorer areas of the city, and he wanted to emphasise how important it was for people to have the same opportunity he'd had to rise from relatively humble beginnings.

During the day he spoke about the mystery of why social mobility has declined in past the 20 years at the same time as more people from wider social backgrounds have gone to university.

It was that passion which led the last government to ask him to produce a report on ideas to break that pattern.

The fact that his report was largely ignored may have given him more motivation to accept a role with the new administration.

But what do the Coalition get out of it?

It certainly wrongfoots Labour, but this seems to be an appointment sought by the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg will make the formal announcement on Wednesday).

Some Conservatives are not so keen, especially as this is now the third Labour grandee appointed to look at crucial policy areas (Frank Field is advising on welfare reform, Lord John Hutton on pensions).

They may well calculate that he's unlikely to be entirely baggage-free. Many on the right see Grammar Schools as the answer to social mobility - something Mr Milburn has already rejected.

For many in Labour, it will confirm what they already thought of the former Health Secretary.

He was seen as a disloyal plotter against Gordon Brown.

But others may be dismayed that they'll now struggle to take advantage of one of the more interesting and original thinkers in the party.


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