Labour must understand the transformed politics of “anxious aspiration”

A time of ‘anxious aspiration’ that is founded upon the uncertainty of ever increasingly dynamic technological change in a world of globalised production and global culture. Here then is a space where the left can win back the middle classes in a thoroughly authentic manner - perhaps for the first time since Atlee and 1945. Familiar fairness for unfamiliar times.

Tristram Hunt in this month’s Progress makes a very valuable point and one that I think is at the heart of the changed nature of the ‘politics of aspiration’ in light of the recent financial crisis:

“… here’s what has changed: a society built on aspiration has become a society built on insecurity … families are no longer asking (as they were in 1992), ‘how can I ensure a better life for my child?’ but rather ‘how can they have what I’ve had?

“With specters looming such as rising pension costs and higher university tuition fees, people are struggling to hold on to what they have got.”

Aspiration as a message was of course central to the three Blair victories of ’97, ’01 and ’05 and indeed was something that Mr Blair saw as uniquely distinguishing himself as a ‘winner’ from other left-leaning members of the party such as Gordon Brown and his protege at the treasury Ed Balls. In ‘A Journey’ Blair remarks:

“… he (Ed Balls) suffers from the bane of all left-leaning intellectuals. As I have remarked elsewhere, these guys never ‘get’ aspiration.”

Blair sincerely believed that it was his ability as Labour leader to articulate a message of private aspiration combined with public social justice that permitted him to bring home three terms and provide Labour with a compelling and comprehensive message to the electorate. While personally I am inclined to agree with Blair’s analysis of the importance of that message in making Labour electorally credible, I am also inclined to agree with Hunt that the terrain has fundamentally shifted.

As a result, in order to reach out to those same crucial voters of 1997 and 2001, Labour must seek not solely to re-articulate a message of ‘aspiration’ as couched in the terms of those electoral landslides (this essentially being understood as greater purchasing power, ever-easier access to credit and subsequently to home ownership) but instead must seek to confront and reflect a growing public sentiment regarding the neglected flip side of aspiration.

It is this obverse aspect of aspiration in a globalising world, namely insecurity, instability and unfamiliarity – coupled with the profound belief that for the first time in perhaps a century our children’s lives will not be better than our own – that is a truly crucial space of public sentiment which Labour must come to reflect and seek to offer credible solutions.

Generation Y and those that succeed them that will have to deal with rising pension costs, higher education tuition fees, an impossibly expensive housing market, relative British decline in the global economy, ever increasingly ‘liquid’ global flows of capital, people and goods and a resource and ecological ‘crunch’ that over the longer term will make the credit crunch seem increasingly trivial.

It is this unease that coheres with the reality of an increasingly self-diagnosed ‘squeezed middle’ and a genuine concern among parents and grandparents that Generation Y and age cohorts younger then them will not enjoy many of the advantages of British citizenship that they took for granted.

Subsequently Labour must recognise that the aspirations now are not those of 1997. Instead in an ever more globalising world that undermines all the old certainties of family, career, culture, the nation state and even the idea of concrete personal identity it seems likely that individuals will increasingly look to government to offer security, continuity and familiarity.

It is in the area of personal debt and the erosion of the Bevanite settlement that the leadership must focus on the changed politics of a newly ‘anxious aspirationalism’ in order to articulate a compelling and progressive message. In order to do this we must critique Tory plans through the lense of debt and current attempts at the ‘privatisation’ of public debt to private persons.

The electorate is for the first time since the mid-1970s increasingly uneasy about debt. British attitudes towards indebtedness have changed massively since the 1960s and there is no reason why they won’t return to the more risk-averse position of the recent past. Subsequently, on tuition fees, Labour needs to critique Tory plans on higher education using the same discourse the Tories have utilised against the party, namely their inadequacy as an approach on the basis of fiscal irresponsibility and imprudence.

Indeed, increasing student debt to maintain existing levels of finance to universities is using the 1979-2007 approach and shows a thorough lack of any real desire to innovate, be it through offering more courses being part-time, over two years instead of three or using greater levels of information technologies. The Tories point to a Labour legacy of overleveraging in the housing market, consumer credit and through the use of public sector deficits to finance public services – all valid points.

What Labour must stress is that with changes to higher education fees the intentions of the coalition government are merely the privatisation of public debt, specifically onto the shoulders of those who as non home-owners are already largely debt-free – namely Generation Y. An emphasis on intergenerational justice when using the lense of debt is key in the new politics of a ‘familiar fairness’.

Labour needs to articulate a notion of fairness that is combined with the desire to be free from debt or to at least minimise it. The new aspiration is in many ways the same as that of the old, people want to get on and make something of themselves while also wishing for a better life for their children. What has crucially changed, however, is this newly found aversion to debt, and it is here where Labour can regain the English middle-class without having to ‘triangulate’ in a Clintonesque fashion the interests of the squeezed middle with those of the least well off.

In many ways the post-war middle class desire to ‘get on’ was tied up and ensured by the Bevanite system of collective welfare, employment security and entitlements such as grammar schools and guaranteed access to university education. This faith in the system eroded after 1979 with the belief that it was increasingly private debt that could fund homes, education, childcare and pensions instead of the old state-centric Bevanite model.

This then is the new politics of aspiration – one where the old aspirations in part still remain – but are fused with a fear of private debt, the demands of an increasingly articulate Generation Y and the desire for the ‘familiar fairness’ of the post-war settlement among older and, very often, middle class demographics. This is not, however, a panegyric to that age and one must recognise that halcyon bygones are never reconstructed. What is crucial is that the left must recognise that at times of unease, anxiety and insecurity – familiar narratives of fairness seem most compelling.

The new politics of aspiration for the left, one that should always be seen within the context of a globalisation that erodes all the old certainties, now greatly catalysed by the fear of student debt, and the worry that one’s children will not enjoy those benefits today’s parents took for granted, may not seem as pressing as those of Beveridge’s day but arguably represent a new terrain where the old fears are synthesised with the new hopes.

A time of ‘anxious aspiration’ that is founded upon the uncertainty of ever increasingly dynamic technological change in a world of globalised production and global culture. Here then is a space where the left can win back the middle classes in a thoroughly authentic manner – perhaps for the first time since Atlee and 1945. Familiar fairness for unfamiliar times.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.