Labour, Aspiration and Ideology

According to my site’s stats, one of the most popular things I’ve written is about hard work as ideology. The idea that politicians’ use of the term has caused it to become ideologically loaded. ‘Hard-working families’ is now short hand for a whole set of normative positions and political expectations projected onto citizens. This is happening again through the use of the word ‘aspiration’. What’s more, it’s causing some sections of the Labour Party to fall into the same trap they did with taking on the ideology of ‘hard work’.

For Labour, at its heart is yet another/the constant battle for the party’s soul. Those to the right of the party were quick to proclaim that, essentially, Labour didn’t win the election because it didn’t appeal to Tory voters. Yes, this last sentence is a bit hyperbolic, but let me explain: the New Labour approach is that the core vote will never leave Labour, because there is nowhere else for them to go – indeed Mandelson has said just that (a notion that votes for the Lib Dems in 2010, and votes for the SNP, UKIP and the Greens this time round bring into sharp question). In order for the party to win elections, it must appeal to ‘Middle England’, the floating voters, and those Tories who are seen as perhaps having a bit more social compassion. Now, I don’t deny that the specifics of British electoral politics, combined with the decline of the traditional industrial working class, means that Labour does have to  appeal beyond its core vote (of course it does). Yet, it must do so on a distinctly labourist (or dare I say socialist?) platform. Focusing on a discourse of ‘aspiration’, effectively owned by the Conservatives, is damaging in two ways: firstly for the Labour Party itself, and secondly for the country as a whole.

Labour and Aspiration

Plenty of people have already pointed out that far from being an anti-aspiration party, Labour has plenty. It is just the case that Labour is for the people who aspire to have a living wage, who aspire to be able to pay their bills and treat their kids once in a while, who aspire to go to work (but can’t because of childcare costs, perhaps), and who aspire to build a more equal Britain. Yet, as Chuka Umunna and Peter Mandelson have demonstrated, this is not the dominant meaning of aspiration currently circulating in the party. Rather, aspiration is the desire to make vast profits. Many will not see a problem with this, which is entirely understandable. It is natural to want to make money, to ‘get on’, to ‘make something of yourself’. There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with wanting to better yourself. The thing is, the language being used is that of the Conservative Party. By using that same language, the right of the Labour Party is implanting the idea that there is little difference between voting red and blue. What’s more, it is being done in a way that makes this implanting unconscious. So when you ask someone why they think there is no difference between the parties you won’t get a clear, well outlined answer. And without this clear answer, it is much harder to present the party as qualitatively different (beyond promises written in stone and election pledges). The right may believe that appearing to be too left wing is electorally disastrous. But by using the language of those to the right of Labour, many are simply legitimising the actions of those groups. Think back to Labour’s confused position on immigration – stricter controls on immigration, followed by a meek clarification that it’s because the poor dears are exploited when they come over here and steal our jobs and women. It’s not enough.

Blair urged Labour to ‘appeal to those running businesses as well as those working in them’. A sensible approach. But the Labour Party was not created for the business owners, but the workers. As a party, Labour’s focus should always prioritise workers – of all classes and backgrounds – over owners. Of course we should court the business owner’s vote, but never to the extent to let the owner off the hook. If we do that, there is little point in being associated with the Labour Movement. Yet currently, even through Ed Miliband’s campaign (even if the message was a bit scrambled), adopting uncritically the dominant language around ‘aspiration’, Labour fails to live up to its raison d’être – to promote the interests of working people, whether society-at-large considers them hard working or not. This is part of a wider ideological issue with the term.

The Ideology of Aspiration

‘Aspiration’ as currently used in political discourse is designed to achieve a number of aims. Firstly, it aims to normalise entrepreneurship and competition. By extension it also normalises inequality. By promoting the idea that this is the natural state of things – that, to use a Gramscian term, it is ‘common sense’ to strive for ever bigger profits at the cost of equality and co-operation – it legitimises this position. By being set as the default, it becomes harder to argue against, and so also becomes harder to argue for alternatives. If, down the pub, I criticised the notion of wanting to ‘get on’ as it is currently presented, people would think I was mad and a loony lefty hell-bent on dragging the country into some kind of dystopian, grey jump-suited Sovietesque nightmare.

But consider this: how many people do you know who genuinely aren’t ambitious? By this, I don’t mean people who are happy in a low-level job, perhaps, and have no desire to get promoted or get a better job. I don’t mean people who aren’t too bothered whether they ever own a house or have a prestige car. Rather, think if you know anyone at all who doesn’t want to achieve something, however small, and regardless of how possible it may be to achieve. But there is a bigger issue. Those at the bottom of the pile, those trapped in low-paid jobs or on zero hours contracts, or those who are unemployed and can’t keep a job, or those who are homeless, or who are struggling with addiction – these people are effectively barred from having aspirations in the way that society generally defines them. The single parent with four children is focusing on getting them fed and getting them to school, with the rest of their time filled with housework and their shift work. When are they supposed to find the time to open their small entrepreneurial enterprise? Those who can’t afford leisure time can’t participate in society in the same way as those on better salaries who can afford to work less hours. If your aspiration is getting to the end of the week and having enough money left over to pay the bills, is that not legitimate? Is that not worth discussion by politicians on the left and the right? At its core, aspiration as currently understood is distinctly middle class. It is built around the life of someone who has the disposable income and free time to be able to actively participate in (civil) society. As they say, ‘it takes money to make money’. If that’s the case, the deck is already stacked against a vast swathe of people.

Returning this to the issue of party politics, it is right that Labour appeal to the notion of aspiration. But it must be clear, deliberate and considered in how it defines the term, ensuring that it is not a snub to those people whose current aspirations are simply to survive, rather than to climb the ladder.

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