The loudest voices in the discussion on the future of the Labour party have been calling for a return to a politics of aspiration. Regardless of whether individually we agree, disagree, or feel that the Labour party has always been for aspiration, discussion is needed as to what aspiration means as a Labour value. Specifically, we need answers to the question of how valuing aspiration can sit alongside and further the aims of reducing societal inequality and creating a society which works for the most vulnerable. We need a distinctively Labour version of aspiration politics that distinguishes itself from its Tory counterpart from the very beginning.
There is a worrying trend in the way the notion of aspiration has been used so far by commentators. The discussion is playing out against the background of the ‘too right wing’ or ‘too left wing’ debate and calls for the party to return to the centre ground. If valuing aspiration is viewed as associated with, or even synonymous with, a move to centre ground, we run the risk of cementing aspiration as a right-wing value. To value aspiration need not and should not be viewed as moving ever closer to the Tory position. If it is treated as such, even implicitly, we run the risk not only of finding ourselves with an incoherent ideology but also of alienating further those voters who did not view us as a true alternative to the Conservatives in the last election.
Over the last five years the Conservative aspiration narrative has been a deeply negative one. Making hard work pay did not mean getting more for those who work hard. Instead, by taking away support from others, certain individuals increase their relative but not their absolute standing. The Conservatives also managed to create a mood of hopefulness – five more years of austerity and then those in work will feel the benefit of an improved economy. Things will get better and we will get richer. Their perceived pro-business stance encouraged the idea that hard work and initiative can bring great rewards. For a few individuals this will be true but for the many it will not.
Aspiration, however, does not need to look like this. Indeed we should stress that to punish those who are left behind is not to value aspiration. To cut services essential for many in low and middle income groups to get on is not to value aspiration. To create a society in which failure means suffering does not encourage the creativity and risk-taking needed to succeed and is not to value aspiration.
These views are nothing new. They are widely held among members and supporters of the Labour party. But with the internal wrangling over left versus right, Miliband versus Blair, and the accompanying controversy over the term aspiration, we are in danger of distorting our message and these views being lost. We need to stop granting, implicitly or explicitly, that to value aspiration is to move to the right. If we are to see a return of aspiration politics for the Labour party, we need to clearly state what we do and do not mean by it. We need to replace arguments over left and right with positive answers to the question, ‘Reducing inequality and valuing aspiration, how do we do both?’