Deconstructing aspiration

“Aspiration” has become the buzzword of the Labour Party leadership campaign.  Candidates are telling us that Labour under Ed Miliband failed to understand or encourage it, and if Labour is to win again it must embrace it.  What does it mean, and what does it tell us about the nature of these candidates’ politics?

As commonly understood, aspiration is about the will of individuals to “get on”, to achieve a decent and rising standard of living for themselves (and their families).

But, as Chris Dillow has pointed out, that raises some fairly fundamental questions in the current state of the economy – characterised by almost zero growth, falling real living standards and – in particular – the crisis in productivity that no mainstream politicians are talking about.  As he points out, in a world of zero productivity growth, real incomes can increase in one of three ways: through movement into work, through benign falls in commodity prices (which of course can have catastrophic effects on primary producers) or, crucially, if one person’s income rises at the expense of another’s: aspiration at a time of flat productivity is a zero sum game.

Politically this has huge implications – it suggests that Jon Trickett MP’s comment to the effect that aspiration is a coded way of saying that inequality is acceptable is simply an expression of cold economic fact.  It implies that unless the economy is expanding and productivity is growing, promoting aspiration in individual terms is a cause of inequality.  And, quite obviously, the economy is currently in a dire state.  Real incomes have fallen at a rate unprecedented for much more than a century, and the lower the income, the faster the fall.  For many at the bottom end of the income scale – especially those dependent on social security (which, it is always necessary to remind people, includes millions of people in work) – the issue is not one of aspiration, but of simple survival.  And these are the people who deserted Labour in droves in 2010, and stayed away in 2015.

But it is about far more than economics.  It has become fashionable to discount the post-war social democratic settlement, but it provided the basis on which aspiration was benign and a driver of positive change – investment, productivity growth, a steady rise in real incomes for the majority.  And many of the things that fall under the umbrella of aspiration were delivered collectively – better health care, education,  decent housing.  For my generation, the children of the sixties, the most obvious manifestation of this was the free university education that was denied to our parents.

By the same token, there has been no more socially destructive policy than the sale of council houses – which remains the touchstone of aspiration for the right.  Thirty five years on, it remains a root cause of a profound and unprecedented housing crisis. And the Tories justify the extension of right-to-buy to housing association stock in the name of aspiration; sometimes we have to accept that the wellbeing of the many justifies holding back the aspiration of the few.

Unless we can find the economic policies to break out of the spiral of low productivity and falling real incomes, the politics of aspiration is fundamentally about the devil taking the hindmost.  Talking about aspiration without addressing the economic basics is at best frivolous and at worst simply accepting the right’s economic framing wholesale.  And we need to understand that there are things that are better done collectively; that has been part of Labour’s core philosophy from the start.

Two questions, then, for Labour politicians (and especially leadership candidates).  Do you accept that individual aspiration has its limits, and that many of the most important things in life are best provided collectively?  And, crucially, are you prepared to accept that unless the economic fundamentals are right, the idea of aspiration is incompatible with a more equal and just society?

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