If there’s one political concept I detest even more than the banal cliché ‘hard-working families’, it’s the notion of the ‘aspirational voter’. I had already had quite enough of the former during the election campaign, and now ‘aspirational’ has become the new buzzword as Labour’s ‘soul searching’ into the great debacle gets underway and a succession of Blairite ‘big beasts’ steps up to stomp on Ed Miliband’s political corpse in the pages of the Guardian.
Two days ago Alan Johnson sang the first note, telling Radio 4 that Labour must once again become the ‘champion of aspirational voters.’ According to Johnson, the reason for Labour’s defeat was its departure from the glory days of Tony Blair, and its neglect of ‘The issue of aspiration in people’s lives; we can no longer relate to them as a party of aspiration.’
And another of Blair’s disciples, Ben Bradshaw, qualified the meaning of ‘aspirational’ a little more closely, declaring:
‘We need our party and next leader to celebrate our entrepreneurs and wealth creators and not leave the impression they are part of the problem. Economic competence combined with social justice.’
On Sunday Tony Blair himself joined the aspirational chorus in an article in the Observer on the election, which argued:
‘The Labour party has to be for ambition as well as compassion and care. Hard-working families don’t just want us celebrating their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that, we support it.’
And today the Guardian, performing its traditional role as a sound amplifier for Blairite ‘modernisers’, contains similar observations from the ‘prince of darkness’ Peter Mandelson, and shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, who argued that the Labour party ‘needed to appeal to the “John Lewis community”, including those who aspired to shop there and at Waitrose, rather than sticking to appealing to its core vote.’
According to Hunt ‘The reason why this debate needs to be long and deep and painful for the Labour party is we are in a real hole. We are in a hole in Scotland and we are in a hole in England and we’ve got challenges in Wales as well. But the issue in England is this double bind of losing traditional Labour communities often under pressure from Ukip, and not speaking to an aspirational, John Lewis couple.’
Such statements seem to take it for granted that Ed Miliband’s timid and half-hearted tilt towards the centre-left was some wild revolutionary experiment perpetrated by the ghosts of Lenin, Trotsky and Chairman Mao and orchestrated by the SWP, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Militant Tendency. They also vulgarize the whole notion of ‘aspirational’ and reduce it to nothing more than a desire to acquire wealth – a desire which a sinister alliance of ‘Red Ed’ and the trade unions supposedly opposed.
Personally I consider myself aspirational. I would like, for example, to be as good a writer as I can be. I would like to overcome my own weaknesses and live in accordance with the moral and ethical principles that I have always tried to adhere to, in both my personal and political life.
I would like to make a contribution, within my limited abilities and capacities, towards the creation of a society and a world order in which the concept of social justice is not just a soundbite on a Labour politician’s lips, but the fundamental inspiration in the way society is organized. I would like to live in a country that looks after its most vulnerable members, where the poor and disabled are not punished, where immigrants are not demonised for the crime of being foreign. I would like to see a society that uses its formidable resources to release the potential that so many of us have to do so many different things, a country that doesn’t engage in gratuitous wars and doesn’t engage in pathetic and vainglorious attempts to ‘punch above its weight’ by accumulating weapons of mass destruction.
I would like to leave the planet in better shape than it was when I came into it, which will still be habitable for the generation that comes after me. I would like my daughter and her peers to inherit a future in which they are not burdened with debt as the price for a university education, where they will be able to find meaningful, secure work.
Those are some of my aspirations. Some readers may share them, and others may have their own. Because there are few people who don’t aspire towards something. Parents want to help their children. Children want to help their parents and grandparents. Many people work as volunteers or hold down difficult and challenging jobs, because they want to help other people or become useful members of their community. Hospitals are filled with doctors and nurses who aspire towards helping and caring for the sick. Schools contain teachers who want to become better teachers than they are, and help the children they teach realise their own aspirations.
All over the country people dream of improving their personal circumstances, even if the odds are against them, and many also dream of improving the circumstances of others. But these are not the aspirations that are included in the Labour party’s use of ‘aspirational’ as a political buzzword that refers to nothing except an individualistic desire to ‘get on’ and become rich and even richer – regardless of how these objectives are achieved.
The return to this kind of language is a demonstration of the poverty of imagination in the upper echelons of the Labour Party, and also of the degree to which its leading lights remain bewitched by the Thatcherite revolution that gave birth to New Labour in the first place. Do the politicians who are queuing up to lead the Labour Party really believe that traditional Labour voters in Scotland turned en masse to the SNP because they wanted to shop in John Lewis and Waitrose? Do they think that Ukip came second in 120 seats, many of them in Labour’s traditional heartlands, because Labour wasn’t ‘aspirational’ enough?
It is true that Labour won three elections under Blair, but it is also worth remembering that the membership of the Labour Party dropped by more than half between 1997 and 2010, and only began to pick up again when Blair was gone. All this took place despite – or perhaps because of – its fervent embrace of militarism and its starry-eyed glorification of ‘entrepreneurs and wealth creators.’
The parliamentary leadership was never too bothered about this, because it always assumed that its core vote had nowhere else to go and would come back to it come election time. Now that is no longer the case, and the old Blairite nostrums won’t work. They will not help the party recover its lost ‘soul’ and are further proof that the Labour Party no longer has a soul to lose. Over the next five years, we will need to see a huge fight against the Tory wrecking machine that is poised to wreak unprecedented havoc on British society.
The return of Tony Blair and his cronies and disciples is further evidence that such a fight will not come from the leadership of the Labour Party, and that aspirational voters who dream of the rebirth of progressive politics will do better to look beyond these careerists and tawdry, vulgar technocrats, regardless of whether or not they want to shop at Waitrose.