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On the centre ground and the politics of aspiration

pot-of-gold-at-end-rainbow-reveal-loopTony Blair’s enduring, if banal, insight is that parties win elections from the centre ground. Labour has to be where most of the voters are in order to win seats enough to govern. While in one sense true, in another the centre ground is a many legged beast. And each body segment has its own direction of travel.

It’s not the done thing to believe the polls these days, but they have consistently shown support for nice lefty things like nationalisation of utilities and the rails, properly funding the NHS, rent controls, and a host of other causes we hold dear. And they also show the salience of some regressive views – antipathy toward immigrants, and hostility to those dependent on social security.

The centre ground here is merely a recipe for wishy washy fudging that satisfies no one. You can do that, or you can have a programme that tries to address these on their own terms. This is what the Labour manifesto did. There were some sensible and eminently supportable policies and some that, from a socialist point of view, were less than ideal. It was a centre ground manifesto as per Blair’s understanding, and it still lost.

Furthermore fetishising the centre ground not only runs the risk of fixing for all time political truths whose sell by date has long passed, it can also be a recipe for dull, grey managerial politics. Not only does this fail to inspire electorates, as this general election campaign has shown, it leaves Labour woefully unprepared to counter the irrationalism peddled by the Tories and UKIP.

Blairism of the 1997 vintage was hardly passionate politics, but it rode the wave of a generalised anti-Tory feeling. The more leftish programme Labour offered this time didn’t connect because it was too wonkish, despite having plenty of good stuff that would have made a real difference to people’s lives. So while Blair is right in one sense, Labour needs a more sophisticated understanding of the political ground it works as well as realising the capacity it has to break new ground itself.

The other word is aspiration. Doing the rounds on TV and in the papers, leadership hopefuls and newly elected MPs have been talking it up. This was the other great insight of Blairism, of understanding that where people are isn’t always where they want to be. This, apparently, was a lesson unlearned during the last five years. It’s not that the Labour manifesto failed to address aspiration, but rather the wrong aspirations.

The worker on a zero hour contract aspires to regular hours. The problem is, she’s not the one who votes whereas the archetypal hard-pressed business owner does. Millions of people are trapped in insecure tenancies, but their vote is nothing compared to actual and aspiring land lords. And on it goes. The problem here is if we chase the small c conservative aspirations as Blair did, we run the risk of destroying our party. We tip toward deficit determinism and accepting key tenets of the Tory manifesto, and we might lose tens of thousands of members and, crucially, our trade union life line.

More balanced politics are required. As I’ve argued before, Labour has always been less a working class party and more a proletarian one. i.e. It has gathered in its ranks all stratas of a wide, variegated class that is compelled to work for a living. We and our movement are living proof that the aspirations of those at the bottom and those better off can be squared – not without tensions – in a common framework. Doing so and taking that programme to the country requires nous and political imagination, not lapsing into the comfort zones of the past.

12 Comments

  1. John p Reid says:

    Define properly funding the NHS, Bevans, pave a doctors palms with a gold,Atllee Gaitskell in 1951 introducing charges,
    Funding the NHS via charities, a Church, so-operative ,the blue Lbour way, or private money via New Labour?, funding it via bonds are placing Natoinal insurance,Frank fields idea

    Saying 2015,manifesto was a cente aground Blair understanding manifesto is daft, not just the higher rate tax,but borrowing to invest ,too create wealth to drive down debt, really!

  2. John p Reid says:

    dont see how a link saying if labour swing to the right,it would destroy the party, with an article repeating that Cruddas thinks we’re not pro enough business, is proof of this?

  3. Robert says:

    The Tories are now in and in the next five years I think we will see wages rise faster, benefits will be cut, which labour wanted as well.

    So here we are again Thatcher mark 2 and people at the bottom people out of work people like me will not be rushing out to vote labour at any time soon because you do not speak for us any more..

    A rebuilding program has to take place and these days after New labour telling us the NHS is safe with us did not get the response expected , you cannot blame people they saw what labour had offered during it’s 13 years in power.

    Blair did not chase the center ground he moved labour into the right wing ground, he was a Tory as was Brown while it suited him then tried to move the party back to the left then panic set in and he moved back to the right.

    This election the working poor and the working middle class decided labour offer of a living wage which was then dropped on the orders of Chuka and his Progress mates ended up telling working people we will cap rises to 1% and you can have £8 in five years nice of them those people decided they would get more from the Tories in wages rises.

    Those with disabilities like me decided labour offer of labour not being the party of welfare or benefits was nice of them made it easy for people to vote for somebody else.

    What a mess we have the liberals decimated, we have labour losing what was it 45 seats mostly in Scotland but losing one in Wales that had been labour for 100 years.

    If you think things are bad wait until next years Assembly elections are over.

  4. James Martin says:

    The key with ‘aspiration’ is how we define it, and we need to have the argument with the Progress tendency head on here.

    THEY try and define it in a Tory individualist way, and anti-collectivist and a completely selfish way.

    That is the politics of the current 3 Progress stooges of Ummuna (wouldn’t trust him to bring back the change if he was sent to get some bread and milk from the corner shop, wouldn’t trust him to bring back the bread and milk either come to that), Hunt (cockney rhyming slang) and Kendall (never heard of her – saw her wittering all over the place on the telly on Sunday and still didn’t have a clue who she is).

    But WE can define aspiration in a socialist and collectivist sense that can gain wider traction in terms of support. The aspiration to have a good planned and well funded NHS. To have good planned value for money nationalist railways. To have a fantastic state education system with local democratic control. To have good public services that care for those that need it and serve us all. To have safe neighbourhoods. To have secure employment. To have fairness in the workplace. To have dignity and financial security in retirement. To end the cancer of unemployment and give people decent productive jobs.

    That is all aspiration, and it is aspiration that if done correctly will resonate with large numbers. It is also OUR aspiration, not theirs.

  5. Curlew says:

    “The worker on a zero hour contract aspires to regular hours. The problem is, she’s not the one who votes whereas the archetypal hard-pressed business owner does.”

    So let’s support him and not his 10 workers on the breadline? Back to Victorian times eh?

  6. throbshaw says:

    “As I’ve argued before, Labour has always been less a working class party and more a proletarian one.”
    I wonder where Marx would place a party dominated by public sector Unions protecting the privileges of their members? Surely more a strand of the bourgeoisie, rather than the proletariat?

  7. gerry says:

    Phil – New Labour in 1997 showed one way to win over the suburbs, smaller towns and cities in the South, the East and the Midlands to Labour, and did so exactly as you say: by accepting the Thatcher economic consensus but promising a “fairer” society. And it worked again in 2001, when we won another majority of votes and seats in England, but by 2005 the Tories were back as the biggest English party by votes although we still got an overall majority in the UK.

    Given the wipeout in Scotland and probable independence sometime soon, Labour has to win a majority of seats and votes in England and Wales to ever win again, let alone in 2020.

    But the main difference between now and 1997 is that in 2015 some 60% of those who voted did so for right wing/Thatcherite parties – Tories, UKIP, Lib Dems!

    The only parties to our left – SNP, Greens – got 9% between them.

    So we either have to win over ex Tories, UKIPpers, and Lib Dems, or we have to somehow engage and enthuse millions of those who did not vote in 2015 to actually vote and vote for us: a hideously difficult task.

    So our choice now is stark – win back the English electorate by some sort of refried New Labour or Blue Labour mix which appeals to them as well as to enough of our own core voters…or offer a recognisably left or centre left programme which can enthuse and motivate at least 3-4 million new voters as well as our core voters, also a herculean task.

    Oh, and whatever route we choose we need a superstar leader and communicator who embodies the message…for all his sins, that is exactly what Tony Blair did in 1997!

  8. David Ellis says:

    What does aspiration even mean in a society where rich and poor are divided by an unbridgeable chasm. Social mobility is dead. Capitalism is dead. Shitting on the poor, disabled and dying will not change that. If Labour wants to find common cause with the middle classes then it needs a programme that will radically take on monopoly, corporate, banking capitalism and the super rich. Another Blairite drone in the pockets of the City will see Labour in England as pasoked as it was in Scotland under Murphy.

    1. Billericaydickie says:

      Capitalism is very much alive!

  9. syzygy says:

    We need a left wing FDR and a New Green Deal

  10. Mukkinese says:

    A sensible article with a sensible outlook.

    Of course we will get the usual hobby-horses ridden through any reasonable and rational discussion. It is always the way with Labour, ignore the facts and cling to the dogma, of whatever cultist faction you subscribe to.

    Labour got a lot of policy right this time. Not all, but a lot. The polls by Yougov which asked about each party’s individual policies over a period of time, show that much of what Labour was offering, when it was understood, was more popular than the policies of the Tories.

    It wasn’t policy that lost this election, it was a combination of; not being clear on the policy and getting that clear message across to enough people over a long enough period, an idiot complacency over Scottish Labour voters and the unchallenged perception that Labour caused the economic “mess”…

  11. David Pavett says:

    The “politics of aspiration” talk is a typical Labour reaction to problems in that it excludes serious discussion of policy and focusses instead on claims about what will and what will not win votes.

    Most of us have encountered this issues hundreds of times: “oh I agree with you but we can say that or we will loose votes”.

    This is the awful Labour discourse of (1) you can’t do anything if you don’t have power, (2) if you say X then you will not get power, (3) we must not say X.

    This trite approach excludes any critical examination of society and any attempt to draw objective conclusions about its problems and what must be done to resolve them. Sometimes the answers might take decades to implement but that shouldn’t matter. We should be clear about what are the problems of current society an what we have to do to resolve them, whatever the time scale. The Labour Party has zero clarity on this. It does not go beyond tweaking current society to make it a bit more acceptable.

    If this were all that is required then the left should pack up shop and join with the majority who accept that the way things are is largely they way they have to be.

    “Aspiration” is just a code word for allowing winners and losers as a part of the normal social process and thereby excluding social progress as a collective effort in which people contribute according to their ability. Its implications are deeply reactionary and that is not because aspiring to something better is not a good thing. Of course it is a good thing. What matters is the context in which aspirations are realised.

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