Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Politics of Aspiration

Miliband,_Ed_(2007)

‘The Labour Party has a bad relationship with aspiration’. Progressive taxing ‘stunts ambition’, benefits ‘incentivise fecklessness’ and the NHS is only ‘haemorrhaging our taxes’.

Labour stands indicted of punishing success, rewarding failure and committing the cardinal sin of incompetence by the Exchequer. Feeding the feckless from the paypacket of the hardworking. The clichés flow forth.

To those who dare to check the tide? The not a little patronising charge of being ‘well-intentioned but misguided’. It can be a lonely road trying to preach Miliband’s mantra, cyberspace suicide to get caught tweeting ‘#forthemany’.

So why do Labour get such short shrift, whilst a Conservative Party, whose front bench form very caricature of privilege, gets away with their narrative of being the way toward ‘securing a better future’? A real term fall in wages under the coalition government coupled with record levels of economic inequality betray a Conservative Party fundamentally failing its core vote. The path to socio-economic advancement has rarely been so precarious.

On the back of five years of failure, why then the Tory campaign promise: ‘together, we’ll secure a better future for you, your family and everyone in Britain’? An attractive soundbite, yet isn’t the implication of universal prosperity (‘everyone’), regardless of whether people work for it, tantamount to Labour’s propping up the unemployed, supposedly so contentious?

Hopefully we’ll never find out what they really mean. The catalogue of Con-Dem calamities give hope that come what May, the Conservatives will be out on their ear. Political point scoring on tuition fees, the NHS and public sector cuts are, quite rightly, well versed and may get some swing votes.

But perhaps the Achilles heel of the Conservative Party this General Election campaign will be the popular realisation that it no longer represents the interest groups whose vote it takes for granted.

Take small businesses and entrepreneurialism, yesterday’s political priority. The Conservatives have become grubby sell outs to the corporate world, hoping to pull in a £26 million election campaign pot from the unofficial lobby group that is the Square Mile elite. Failing to close a £100 million a year hedgefund tax loophole whilst leaving small business high and dry? It’s just not cricket.

The ‘death of the high street’ isn’t myth, but the prohibitively high business rates which small business face are a fantasy. The Party once headed by the greengrocer’s daughter may boast of record numbers of tech start-ups, but the proportion of small businesses actually employing people is at a record low. Chuka Umunna whilst in opposition has done more for the profile of small businesses than any Tory.

Typical of thinly veiled Tory impotence on the issue may be the gimmick enlisting of Mary Portas to lead a crusading ‘independent review into the state of our high streets and town centres’. Her ensuing project with just £1.9 million of Whitehall backing was unsurprisingly dismal failure, cue Daily Mail proclaiming ‘Mary, Queen of (fewer) Shops’.

Entrepreneurial spirit then sapped, what of populist home ownership? Cornerstone of Thatcherite policy it too has remained unresolved as the 31st January City Hall mass protest showed. Chronic London housing shortages and an inflated house price bubble threaten to leave a generation of young adults dependent on their parents for a roof over their heads. Whatever happened to helping hardworking families secure a better start for their children?  The swelling number of 95% mortgages awarded as stop-gap in in an overheating market threatens to explode.

Less abstract for the typical student is the issue of education. Definitive to where we are and how we got here, education is elemental to ‘social mobility’. So let’s not forget the 1997 Labour pledge of ‘education, education, education’ that arrested over a decade of Tory underinvestment in our schools. The contribution of the five years of our current Tory-led coalition? The pushing through of legislation allowing unqualified ‘teachers’ into the classroom and an expensive social experiment of ‘free schools’ and ‘academies’, which have allowed inevitably privileged and affluent local interest groups of ‘yummy mummies’ to open up prep schools on the cheap. Michael Gove may have got the headlines, but it was thirteen years of Labour government that made a legacy.

Let’s bring some revisionism to the debate on aspiration. Parties and people change. The Conservative Party’s claimed monopoly over the professed ‘aspiration classes’ is wafer thin. New Labour did more for social mobility than David Cameron’s Party ever will, and judging by their powerful City lobby within, ever can. The small man with big dreams would do well to remember this at the ballot box.

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