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Lord Young - will his legacy last? 16/1/02

We are joined by Lord Hattersley, former deputy leader of the Labour Party, and also David Miliband, MP now, but used to head the Downing Street policy unit, and is credited with writing two Labour manifestos. What do you make of his concept of the meritocracy?

I think that Michael Young issued a stark warning of the dangers of a society in which instead of people being born to rule, they are selected to rule. But I think Britain's problem today is hardly that we've got too much social mobility, it's that we haven't had enough. Figures that came out last year showed that only 800 young people from the bottom two social classes made it to university last year.

So we're not meritocratic enough?

We're certainly not. My argument would be that we need more social mobility in Britain. But social mobility is, of course, on its own, not enough. We need to raise up the floor as well as break through the glass ceilings.

Is that almost the reverse of what Michael Young was saying?

No, it's an interpretation. It's far nearer to what Michael Young said than what the Prime Minister says. My last conversation with Michael Young, in September, was, we were discussing whether the Prime Minister would be a meritocrat if he knew what meritocracy produced, which in Michael Young's view, and in mine, it's just shifting patterns of inequality - different people being unequal at different times, but nevertheless a fundamentally unequal society. Michael believed, first and foremost, in the redistribution David Owen talked about, in order to produce a more equal society. That's his abiding principle from before the war until, I guess, when he died on Monday evening.

So in embracing the meritocracy, as Mr Blair has done in terms, directly, has he therefore uncounted everything Michael Young has been talking about?

I don't think so. I think Michael Young had an analysis that was born of real social analysis. He went into poor communities and tried to get to the roots of those problems. I think the Government can claim credit for trying, in a way that Michael Young would approve of, to tackle those root causes. But as well as raising the floor, as well as trying to create a society that is defined by more social equality, we also want to create a society defined by more social mobility, where people do have the chance to raise themselves according to their talents.

But they would be the people that he described as members of the "lucky sperm club".

No. I think we're a long way from that at the moment. As I said before, relative social mobility hasn't changed in over a century in this country. We must be a party and a movement that wants to see more social mobility.

I don't want to make this argument between old and new Labour because we're both here to pay tribute to Michael Young, but Michael's last published article was in the Guardian in September. It was actually criticising the Government's lack of egalitarian zeal. So there's no doubt at all that whilst in some senses we need more mobility, the failure to attack inequalities and to talk obsessively about equality of opportunity, not accepting to the slightest degree that there is some concern, or should be some concern, for equality of outcome, really was a denial of what Michael Young stood for. He didn't only stand for the concept of society I've tried to describe. That was his greatest contribution. But the Open University was essentially his child. He thought of it. My first conversation with Michael Young, nearly 40 years ago, was Michael Young saying, "We've got to extend this to Africa. We can have an Open University in Africa if we only run it off radio rather than television." He was a man of immense vision, always wanting to push forward the frontier of ideas. Equality was only one of them.

Is anyone in your party innovating like that now?

I think that if Roy or I achieved half in our careers of what Michael Young achieved from outside the political line of work itself we'd from be proud of it.

You've written twice as many manifestos, apparently.

I went to see Michael Young. I went to sit at the feet of the greatest manifesto writer in 1995/1996. He only had two pieces of advice for me. He said, "Whatever you do, keep the sentences short. And secondly, don't take any risks because we have to get rid of the Tories."

He did take great risks in 1945. Herbert Morrison, head of policy in charge, didn't want to include the promises to nationalise the public utilities, and Michael Young, unbelievably, in connivance Ian Mikardo - two more dissimilar men it's impossible to imagine - actually persuaded party conference, Michael Young behind the scenes and Ian Mikardo with a rousing speech on the conference floor, that we ought to take the public ownership of utilities very seriously and take them as nationalised companies. He was pushing the frontiers a bit to the left.

How do you reconcile the fact, David Miliband, that on the one hand he was a Socialist and on the other hand he founded the Consumers' Association, which some people said was very non-Socialist and pro-individualist thing to do?

I think Michael Young was committed to empowerment. He saw that empowerment, both of consumers and even of children. His views on education were centred on the idea you should empower children. There wasn't much teaching involved in his view of education. I think that notion of empowerment, of popular empowerment, be it of consumers or employees, because I think he was very committed to employee share ownership, as well. That idea fits very much within the Socialist and Social Democratic tradition.

But the people who do that kind of thingżIt was famously said of him, he wasn't suitable for the front bench position. Do you think that was fair?

No, he would have been wonderful in the House of Commons because he was a very good, though rather quiet speaker. But he could construct sentences, which is the essential requirement of people in the House of Commons. Not everybody possesses it, but it's an essential requirement. His views on consumer power were very much related to wanting to pat it down from the articulate middle classes. He worked for me when he became director of the National Consumer Council when the consumer business was nationalised. His entire operation was trying to think of ways of empowering the working classes, who are normally inarticulate and therefore got pushed around.

Thank you both very much.

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