Thursday 20 May 2010

The politics of aspiration

What is politics for?

A week on from the formation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, and with the Labour leadership contest warming up, it remains uncertain what kind of future we are moving into. The ‘new politics’ are defined by what they are not: the ‘old politics’.

Odd then, that the coalition should have been couched so heavily in terms of something as old-fashioned-sounding as ‘the national interest’. Historically, the term served to obscure conflicts of interest within the nation, and secure working class support for business-friendly policies. Today, with politics dominated by a disoriented middle class and its often arbitrary concerns, the effect, as Brendan O’Neill argues on spiked, is more to disavow politics altogether, with nobody willing to suggest that there might be a political debate about what’s in the ‘national interest’, much less about whether there is such a thing.

Indeed, while old political categories have undoubtedly been emptied of content, politicians and observers find it hard to let go of them. This goes in particular for the defeated Labour party, and that section of the middle class commentariat which continues to describe itself as ‘the left’. Witness their desperate and thankfully unsuccessful floating of the idea of a ‘progressive alliance’ between Labour and the Lib Dems, and the nationalists, and the Green, and, er, anyone else who isn’t, like, really obviously right-wing. For some, it seems ‘progressive’ means little more than ‘not Tory’. Former Labour minister James Purnell has gone so far as to ask what ‘progressive’ means, but his answer - ‘really redistributing power’ – is both obtuse (he seems to mean tax credits) and bizarrely at odds with Labour’s record in government.

To her credit, Green MP Caroline Lucas did raise the concern that a Labour-Lib Dem alliance would not necessarily have been all that progressive. What Lucas meant by progressive is less important than the fact she seriously raised the question. Greens oppose many aspects of the traditional notion of progress, such as economic growth and technological advances, that are worth defending. But in doing so, they at least stimulate debate about the kind of future we want. Labour politicians claiming the mantle of progress would rather we didn’t ask awkward questions. One of the first announcements of our awful new, right-wing government was its intention to roll back some of the previous, progressive government’s progress in abolishing civil liberties. The new government’s libertarian credentials are limited and superficial, yes, but simply raising the previous one’s record ought to be enough to unsettle smug assumptions about who is and isn’t progressive.

Forced into opposition, the Labour party in fact has no choice but to seek to articulate some kind of political vision, with or without reference to its record in government. In his leadership pitch, Ed Miliband insisted, ‘I joined the Labour party at the age of 17. I joined because I thought it was the best vehicle for the hopes and aspirations of the British people. I believed it then, and I believe it now’.

More significant than the reference to an undifferentiated ‘British people’ is Miliband’s appeal to ‘aspiration’, an idea that is both utterly banal and hugely controversial. Banal because superficially nobody could object. Controversial because, when you delve a little deeper, lots of people do. In a recent essay in the London Review of Books, intellectual historian Stefan Collini made a full frontal attack on the idea of an ‘Aspirational Age’, even while noting that ‘To those who can use the word “aspirational” without wincing, this might seem high praise’.

So why would one wince? Well, in fact, the word does have a distinctly New Labour aroma about it. Beginning in the 1990s, Blair and co sought to appeal to the aspirations of a particular section of society described by Collini as, ‘composed of people who probably had working-class parents, who hope to have professional or managerial-class children, and who want more of “the good things of life”’. Just as Margaret Thatcher had won over many traditional Labour voters a generation before by appealing to their individual aspirations in opposition to their class identity, New Labour managed to win back such (now more solidly middle class) voters with the optimistic promise of continued prosperity tempered by revived community and lasting security (‘no more boom and bust’). The promise was a false one, of course, but it was clear to some even before New Labour came to power that its rhetoric of aspiration was a cynical gloss on its acceptance on Thatcher’s dictum that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to the market, which of course channels aspiration in very particular ways.

Objections to the rhetoric of aspiration sometimes rest simply on the observation that it is limited to individuals rather than communities or society as such: it’s about sharp-elbowed individuals screwing over their neighbours. More sophisticated objections are based on an understanding that individual agency is never really decisive anyway. As Collini puts it: ‘The subjectivism of “aspiration” is both its strength and its weakness: it speaks to individuals’ sense of themselves as trying to get on, but hides from them the reality and power of the social patterns that determine their ability to do so, and which result from their blinkered striving.’ This observation ought to lead to a call for collective action in the name of collective aspirations. For obvious historical reasons this is not as simple as it sounds: the whos and hows are just the first in a series of awkward questions. But such questions are rarely even posed, and part of the reason is that objections to the rhetoric of aspiration too often take the form of a rejection of the very idea of ‘getting on’, individually or collectively.

The green critique of economic growth and material progress more generally has become mainstream, and the rhetoric of ‘sustainability’ is today at least as prevalent as that of aspiration, even for parties unwilling to tell voters explicitly that they must liberate themselves from their material desires. Fortuitously, it also seems to be more in tune than aspiration with economic reality.  The politics of ‘well-being’, and the idea that governments have a responsibility to make sure people are happy rather than wealthy are examples of a strong current in contemporary politics that is very much at odds with aspiration in any recognisable sense. In fact the continuing rhetoric of aspiration coincides with an implicit disdain for its traditional connotations, certainly among the political and media classes.

Perhaps the best example of this is in education. Curiously, Stefan Collini associates the term ‘aspirational’ with relativism and kneejerk anti-elitism. Traditionally, ‘getting a good education’, a phrase that reveals an implicit respect for knowledge and the freedom that comes with it, was surely a central element of what people aspired to for themselves and their children. Tony Blair talked the talk with his famous list of priorities: ‘education, education, education’. But what does education mean today? Relativism and anti-elitism are not the invention of an uppity aspirational class, but endemic in the educational establishment itself, which seems far from convinced of the value of imparting knowledge. The Institute of Ideas Education Forum’s Election Statement indicated the need for a basic restatement of what education is for, because British schools are so infused with non-educational concerns, from citizenship to sustainability, healthy eating to self-esteem. Education itself can no longer be taken for granted, frustrating the aspirations of millions.

When the new coalition’s schools minister Nick Gibb dismissed the value of degrees from what he called ‘rubbish universities’, this was widely seen as throwback to old-fashioned Tory elitism. But are all British universities equal? Are they all good? It was of course the last Conservative government that broke down the distinction between universities and polytechnics, and everyone knows the notion that they are equal is a fiction. Working-class kids attending ‘the local university’ are not experiencing anything like the university education enjoyed by their middle class peers, or even their ‘aspirational’ neighbours who make it to real universities. The aspirational quality of education is undermined by a phony egalitarianism, which was embraced just as enthusiastically by New Labour.

So perhaps we should be wary of apparently egalitarian objections to the rhetoric of aspiration more broadly. It is one thing to point out that individuals acting on their own cannot realistically hope to triumph over deeper social realities, quite another to suggest that the desire to do so is immoral or antisocial. Solidarity ought to mean shared aspirations for a better society, not mutual self-sacrifice in a zero sum game. Affirming individual aspirations and asking how they might be met collectively would cut against many assumptions and prejudices that are deeply entrenched in contemporary British politics.

When politicians like Miliband appeal to ‘the aspirations of the British people’, however, they lack conviction. The political class is cut off from the public and the ‘new politics’ thus reflects little more than its own arbitrary concerns, but ‘public opinion’ and ‘the public interest’ are far from being settled and coherent things anyway. Not only is there no straightforward ‘national interest’, but there is no ‘aspirational class’ (much less a ‘sustainable’ one). None of the parties have meaningful connections with particular social constituencies who might give substance to a ‘new politics’, even to the limited extent Margaret Thatcher did with ‘Essex Man’, or to an even lesser extent Tony Blair with a section of the professional middle class. But it is the business of politics to shape such constituencies rather than simply reflect them.

It is ironic that Diane Abbott, who has now entered the Labour leadership contest, is regarded as a solidly left-wing MP whose one flaw is her decision to send her children to private school. That flaw at least marked her as a real person with real concerns. If, rather than bracketing this as a personal decision unconnected to politics, she had sought to make a case for a genuinely good education for all, in opposition to Blairite hype and the phony egalitarianism of settling for what’s there, she might have connected with people’s aspirations in the best sense. Despite the failures of the political class, that remains the business of politics, and the field is open.

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