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Reclaiming aspiration

Jon Cruddas MP

 

Contrasting the supposedly aspirational groups, seats, voters and parts of the country with the so-called core-vote is an extraordinary disservice to millions who fall outside this political calculus.

 

Recent election results demonstrate that support for the Labour Party is literally disintegrating. In Glasgow, in Crewe, in London and across the country in the local elections the verdict was damning.

This did not fall out of the sky – it has been collapsing for many years. For years, Compass had been warning about the fractures empirically occurring across the new Labour coalition. Over the last few years we have consistently flagged up how Labour lost some 4 million voters between 1997 and 2005 – the biggest shifts being among public service workers and more generally among working class voters. In response all we heard was ‘let’s not go back to the 1980s’ – as if any one of us wanted to – or the other response, that we are retreating to some ‘old Labour’ comfort zone. These were literally trite responses to a careful analysis of a trend of electoral decline.

Now darkening economic circumstances have forced the pace of this decline and fully exposed the hollowness of much earlier strategy. Alongside shrinking real incomes and heightened insecurity we have appeared in political free fall. The 10p tax rate crystallised a sense of Labour having vacated its role as the political vehicle for articulating the concerns of working people.

A year ago, change was promised but then little delivered as the election that never was triggered a rewind to the old political playbook of triangulation and tacking to the right.

Increasingly we are outflanked by a modern Conservatism that has discovered a more emotionally literate language – it talks about values and relationships; it empathises with people who are struggling; it appears to be going with the grain of people’s vulnerabilities. Oliver Letwin recently criticised Labour for concentrating too much on the market and presiding over a Britain that has become too unequal (Letwin, 2008). Taking things a step further, Tory blogger Tim Montgomerie went on to proclaim: ‘This is the Conservative opportunity – an opportunity to become the party of the heart and to win a war on poverty that has defeated Labour’ (Montgomerie, 2008). Sure, this Conservatism is policy light and politically brittle – witness David Davis – but simply hitting out at a few posh kids or salesmen as a response undermines our capacity to really take this project on.

Meanwhile, some on our own side are adding to this topsy-turvy atmosphere by pitching for cuts in public spending and tax. We are in danger of trading off the very essence of social democracy. Within classical revolutionary politics there was always a tradition called ‘liquidationism’. When stagnant periods are experienced, some openly pitch for the liquidation of the Party itself. Both on the far right and left of the Party, this tendency appears to be alive and well.

 

Making sense of it all

Let’s go back to the basic architecture of much government thinking in the Party. There is a formula at the heart of the government based around a fundamental rupture between marginal seats and Labour’s heartland. It parallels assumptions regarding the psychology of the swing voter as compared to ‘traditional’ voters. It cynically counter-poses aspiration and our heartlands. As much as the so-called heartlands wanted social democratic, collectivist remedies, this could not be delivered as the marginal swing voter would not tolerate such thinking. They, we are told, are ‘aspirational’ – they want to get on. They would only vote Labour on the basis that social democracy was reduced to acts of stealth; aspirational thinking was meant to be, by definition, individualist, Thatcherite, pro-private and anti-public.

If this was ever true, it is yesterday’s thinking.

Firstly, the last ten years has demonstrated that economic success has also been mirrored by downsides that have impacted on millions across the whole country. Debt, the housing crisis, insecurities heightened by patterns of immigration – they are not confined to some stylised post-industrial heartlands, they are consistent across Reading and Rotherham, Merthyr and Milton Keynes.

Secondly, contrasting the supposedly aspirational groups, seats, voters and parts of the country with the so-called core vote is an extraordinary disservice to millions of aspirational people who fall outside this tight political calculus. My parents were profoundly aspirational in terms of housing, education and work.

My constituency, Dagenham, is profoundly aspirational too and that was brought home to me recently in an email from the Head of Education in the borough – here’s what it said: 

It’s the distinction between core and aspirational voters that gets me – latest version, Peter Hain (1).

First, the distinction is false – of course core voters have high aspirations for themselves, their children and families. Assume they don’t at your political peril. Evidence from Barking and Dagenham young people: Over half (53 per cent) say they hope to go to university, 3 per cent above the national average. 86 per cent say they try their best at school all or most of the time, compared to 81 per cent nationally. More than half say they enjoy school most or all of the time, bang on the national average. Exams are the biggest single worry for children and young people in the borough. A much higher proportion of children and young people worry about their parents and family compared to nationally – they have high levels of concern and aspiration for their families, communities and themselves.

Secondly, the distinction will produce policies that miss the point entirely. Far from the core being lumpen and static, they have high expectations that the political process will help them reach their aspirations – i.e. that politicians will focus on removing the barriers to those aspirations, in terms of poverty, childcare, access to housing, leisure, arts, culture, etc. Removing barriers is the obvious focus.

How do they get it so wrong?

How indeed. I would suggest it is a different type of aspiration this director is alluding to. It is not the aspiration of climbing the ladder and breaking the rungs after you. We need politicians to break from this cynical segmentation of the country and its associated patronisms in terms of who is and is not aspiring – and of course what they are aspiring to achieve.

Politically, we need to reclaim the very nature of aspiration. We need to decontaminate it in terms of the assumption that it means atomised consumption. We need politicians to focus on removing the barriers to reaching aspirations in terms of poverty, child care, access to housing, leisure, arts – removing barriers and also creating a platform.

The traditional New Labour model cannot cater for the disintegration of our coalition over the last few months. These voters in our heartlands – so the theory goes – should have nowhere else to go. But they are leaving us, because of our failure to meet their aspirations – in terms of decent housing, working poverty, their scramble for limited resources and desire for mobility. These aspirations depend on collectivist, social democratic action.

Our objectives in one sense should be quite simple: to construct a language and a story that allows people to render intelligible their concerns and aspiration – and to act as a vehicle to articulate these issues; in turn to rebuild a coalition across class and geography; not by the mechanistic dissection of the country and precision bombing specific messages on to those target groups – that approach is so 1990s – but by weaving together a coalition through a consistent story about what we are trying to do.

 

Learning from 1997

Recently I have been re-reading the 1997 manifesto. The general message was one of economic and social modernisation against a backdrop of decay and inequality – a pretty simple message. Think about some of the commitments.

  • Cut class sizes to 30 for all 5–7 year olds by axing the Assisted Places Scheme
  • Windfall levy on profits of the privatised industries to fund the New Deal and create 250,000 new jobs
  • The national minimum wage
  • 100,000 people off waiting lists
  • Ban tobacco advertising
  • Stop the privatisation of clinical services
  • New rights to maximum working time and minimum annual holiday and parental leave
  • Review the lack of maintenance grants for 16–18 year olds in full-time education
  • Capital receipts from right to buy to be reinvested in new homes or improving stock
  • Licensing scheme for Houses of Multiple Occupancy
  • End the hereditary principle in the House of Lords
  • Referendums on devolution in Scotland, Wales and London
  • A Freedom of Information Act
  • Abolition of the ‘primary purpose’ immigration law
  • Accept the European Convention on Human Rights in to UK law
  • Support for International Criminal Court
  • Seek a new political settlement in Northern Ireland
  • Ban anti-personnel landmines
  • Multi-lateral negotiations on nuclear arms reduction and implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention
  • Create the Department for International Development, radically increase aid spending and reduce developing world debt

Re-reading the text what strikes you is this – would we be bold enough to suggest many of these initiatives today? Is that not why we are failing to meet aspirations for fairness and change in our society? Is this linked to our electoral decline? I think so.

Well, why don’t we start again. Simply put, why don’t we say that our purpose is to build a fairer, more equal and sustainable country and planet. How about some policies: 

  • A new radical covenant between the people and the military– funded by the abolishing of Trident – a hangover from a previous epoch.
  • Abolish the increasingly redundant censusand introduce a new real time demographic survey to allocate resources on the basis of real populations.
  • In turn and at a stroke abolish health inequalities in the funding of primary care – a simple allocation question.
  • Pioneer Local Area Agreements– not 1,500 targets but 30 local objectives – real and enduring devolution drawn up and delivered locally.
  • Democratise the policethrough greater local accountability and elections.
  • Oil companies windfall taxto help those struggling with escalating fuel bills, specifically those in fuel poverty.
  • Tackle the epidemic in youth allergies– asthma, rhinitis, food intolerance anaphylaxis – with paediatric allergy centres across the country.
  • Make work pay– end the National Minimum Wage age rates and pay the rate for the job.
  • A new fair employment clause in all public contractsto end the race to the bottom in the world of work. If you want to bid for public money, you pay a living wage, way above the statutory minimum wage.
  • Build homes for families– allow councils to build for renting, and ease supply issues for all. Even after the recent warm words this is still not allowed. The credit crunch and sub-prime market demonstrates the private sector will not build the homes required – the state has to step in.
  • Make workplaces better– legislate to support workplace environment representatives.
  • Help kids get healthy– free healthy school meals for all primary school kids, not just the poorest.
  • Access to all local authority sports facilities free for kids under 16.
  • Free time for families – even greater flexible working for parents, to allow them time off.
  • A fairer tax system– introduce a new top rate of tax – all new revenues hypothecated to boost benefit levels for the poor and cut taxes for the low paid.
  • Moratorium on private sector role in delivering front line public services. Let’s take stock, come up for air, and have an open discussion of where we are going.
  • Defend the Universal Service obligation in the Post Office.
  • Deal with the legacy of systematic Home Office failure and introduce an earned regularisation of unregularised migrants.

Over the next few months Compass will be developing scores of new policies to distil into a progressive template for the future. But these policies must be the deductive product of a bigger project – of building a fairer, more democratic, sustainable and more equal society – in big primary colours we should proclaim why we are in this, what we want to achieve – the society we want to create and why – in terms of immobility, inequality and a new politics of hope.

Again, let’s take a step back and consider why. Please read and re-read the new Compass document Living in the 21st century (Compass, 2008). This is not a party political tract. It is an attempt to take the pulse of the country – and seek to forge a programme of action.

Most of us work hard yet many of us still feel that our lives are missing a solid foundation. We put in the longest working hours in Europe but have almost twice as much personal debt as other Europeans. Our sons and daughters have to wait until their mid-thirties to even begin to afford their own home. The pressures of unchecked consumerism now affect even our youngest children. When a three-year-old recognises the McDonalds burger symbol before they know their own surname, something is going wrong. In terms of debt we are experiencing a form of indentured consumption – that is what the credit crunch is about. High levels of immigration mean some of our communities are changing fast, but supposedly ‘flexible’ labour markets harden divisions between British and foreign workers, and the media and too many politicians resort to the language of fear and division. When pension schemes are scaled back, white and blue collar jobs are outsourced abroad and no-one knows how they will deal with long term elderly care, it’s little wonder few of us feel confident about the future.

This is where the Labour Party should be – the vehicle to offer new remedies, new solutions. Let’s really drill down to some fundaments; some of the things we never hear anymore: 

  • Half the UK’s population shares just 6 percent of Britain’s wealth, while the top 1 percent own a quarter of it.
  • 11 million people – among them, 3 million children – live in poverty.
  • The rich and powerful hold out the hope that with enough initiative and hard work, we may be able to join them, but their privileges seal them off from the rest of society – and ensure social mobility has all but ground to a halt in this country.

The very rich have become the new untouchables through a myth that their massive wealth will somehow flow to the rest of us – or that if we dare to tax them fairly they will jump ship to another country. As with all myths, there is no evidence that either holds true.

A new politics of hope must start with idealism, and the belief that another world is possible – a world where we can get on, prosper and make the best of things, but where the wealth, income and opportunity differences between the top and the bottom are reduced, leaving no one behind. Whether at home or abroad, no-one’s life should be compromised by the brute luck of birth. Instead we need collective insurance against falling ill or failing through no fault of our own. More than ever, in the future we will need real social security against misfortune.

Put simply, utopianism has been given a bad name by those who want everything to stay the same. The NHS, full employment and even the minimum wage were all initially decried as hopelessly utopian but people had the courage and the desire to struggle to make them a reality. If we become cynical we play into the hands of the rich and powerful. In theory, we all have the chance to rise to the top, but the reality is that most of us don’t have the means to do it. Too many people are denied their freedom because they are denied the resources to be truly free.

Political leaders are reluctant to take the lead. They play it safe, caught in the trap of electoral timidity when the moment demands bravery. This is not a surprise: history teaches us that lasting changes in our lives – from the vote and the NHS, and on to greater women’s equality – were not handed down from on high by benevolent politicians, but fought for by millions of people, convinced that the time for change had come. This is the nature of democracy. Politicians will be cautious until they realise that there is a real groundswell of opinion for change.

The bottom line is this: we can fight to change the direction of the Party but only if we have the political will to do so. Given the patterns of injustice that we see every day it is no less than a categorical imperative that we accept the challenge to change this country. Compass is the vehicle to do so – it is ready. I urge everyone to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

 

This article is based on a speech given to the Compass National Conference on 14 June 2008. To read the new Compass statement and get involved with its policy development programme, visit http://www.compassonline.org.uk/21stcentury.

 

References

Compass (2008) Living in the 21st century, http://www.compassonline.org.uk/21stcentury.

Hain, P. (2008) ‘The ultras and the core’, The Guardian, 19.05.2008.

Letwin, O. (2008) ‘Bring on the scrutiny’, The Guardian, 2.06.2008.

Montgomerie, T. (2008) ‘A new party for the poor’, The Guardian, 8.07.2008.

 

Notes 

1. See Hain, 2008.

Renewal