Aspiration: its a political buzzword that has been hijacked by the right. The Tories have launched their “aspiration nation” tagline of helping those who want to “get ahead”. Indeed the Blarites in the party have laid the ridiculous charge that “Old Labour” did not understand the aspiration of people wanting to do well for themselves.
In fact such attacks only resurfaced recently on the Progress website which had an article attacking what it termed “Digital Bennites” (the mind boggles) for relying on the “politics of envy” which is out of touch with most people, who apparently see themselves as millionaires in waiting.
Neil Kinnock made a rather spirited response to the charge from Nicky Campbell that Labour didn’t understand aspiration in this exchange on the radio. He argued that Labour has always understood aspiration better than any party. It is Labour that has always fought to give working class people decent life chances and has improved their living standards, fulfilling their aspirations for a better life.
“Aspiration” put Labour into power in 1945. People voted Labour because they aspired to free healthcare at the point of use; because they aspired to no longer having the shadow of unemployment hanging over them; because they aspired to have decent housing provided for all. The idea that “Old Labour” didn’t understand aspiration is nonsense. But it is a collective aspiration, worlds apart from that advanced by the Thatcher and Blair.
We on the left do not sign up to a nasty individualist notion of personal aspiration that only feeds into the right’s domination of the political discourse. We don’t labour under the delusion that social justice can somehow be achieved by getting each individual rich enough so that they can send their children to Eton and be treated in Harley Street.
The idea that the left can somehow establish the dominance of principles of equality and communitarianism in public discourse by relying on an individualist notion of people just wanting to personally do well for themselves, isolated from the wider society, is totally absurd. It just feeds into the right’s narrative of individualism and the idea that there is “no such thing as society.”
No, we should all aspire for good hospitals and decent education: a decent standard of living available to all. That is the kind of collective aspiration that we need to advance. Ed Miliband’s vision of “One Nation” Labour needs to eschew the petty individualism that the Tories’ and the Blairites’ idea of “aspiration” amounts to and instead base itself around a common aspiration of all towards building a fair society. Only then can we hope to develop a real hegemony for equality.