Much of the discussion during the leadership debate and since has hinged on the party’s approach to aspiration. John Prescott ridiculed the use of the term, whilst Peter Mandelson said that it is core to Labour’s offer and its ability to win in the future. I know residents in my ward aspire for a better future and voted Labour in May in large numbers. Indeed across England, Labour gained almost 1 million votes compared to 2010. London is arguably one of the most aspirational cities in the world and voted strongly for Labour.
As we consider Labour’s future direction, rethinking what aspiration means to people and attempting to understand its nuances is essential. In fact, I would argue that there are different categories of aspiration: Commodity, Community and Country. A winning electoral formula must appeal to all these aspects.
The most traditional and tangible strand, Commodity aspiration is about the things people want to have that they don’t have at the moment – a nice car, a new conservatory or extension or a foreign holiday. Commodity aspiration isn’t just selfishness writ large – many aspire for commodities for other people, in their role as business owners or parents for example.
Labour had a robust policy offer for people feeling the impact of the Bedroom Tax, zero hours contracts and punitive welfare changes, but we lacked a clear message for people who are just managing to get by, or people who actually felt secure and wanted to do better. In the last Labour government, tax credits and low mortgage and inflation rates formed the bedrock of our appeal to people’s Commodity aspirations and these still provide a guide to Labour’s future policy offer, as Gordon Brown has eloquently spelled out. The battle over the government’s cuts to tax credits gives Labour an opportunity to talk directly to millions of low and middle earning working people and demonstrate we understand their commodity aspirations. This unexpected attack on working people (and unexpected campaigning gift for Labour) must not go unanswered. It is not a constitutional issue, it’s a political one.
However, aspiration is broader than just personal belongings and experiences. Very few people say they are happy in life just because they can acquire lots of stuff. Community aspiration captures people’s hopes for education, transport, leisure and safety.
Did Labour have a clear message about how we would help people get their children into good schools and tackle the chronic shortages of places? Did Labour have a robust story about crime and community safety? “Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” is now 21 years old – older than many first time voters. What did Labour say in the last election about crime and community safety that had similar resonance?
Too often our messages were defined by the public sector workers who would benefit (more nurses, teachers and police officers etc), rather than a clear vision of the stronger, safer and more resilient communities that would result from these policies. The same is true for Labour’s message on transport – we talked about who would own rail companies, but we didn’t talk enough about how services would be improved, by being more reliable and better value for money.
Everyone wants Britain to do well. Some people want Scotland or England to do particularly well at the expense of the other. Country aspiration isn’t about winning the World Cup or Eurovision. It’s much more deeply rooted.
UKIP tried to latch on to this Country aspiration with their “Believe in Britain” message, but the most evident sign of the phenomena was in Scotland. The independence referendum awoke a national pride. Despite Jim Murphy’s heroic efforts, Labour didn’t tap in to the passionately held Country aspiration that ensued and so was washed away.
In 2012, it seemed the “One Nation” phrase had significant potential to address Labour’s problem with Country aspiration. But it quickly morphed in to a catch-all phrase that was added to every press release, often without substance. “One Nation” became a slogan for its own sake, rather than the tip of the whole sword that collated and embedded Labour’s key messages further.
The anti-SNP messages from the Tories (and Liberal Democrats) were a potent tool in persuading people (wrongly) that Labour were anti-British and anti-English particularly, especially when linked to questions over Labour’s commitment to Trident and well resourced armed forces.
The Tories attacks on the Country aspiration credentials of the Labour Party were relentless for five years, arguing Labour “took Britain to the brink”, “maxed out the country’s credit card” and “left a huge mess”. These attacks were both hugely unfair and hugely successful.
Labour’s best Country aspiration language is now very dated. “New Labour” became synonymous with “New Britain”. One was renewed so the other could be. “New Labour – New Britain” instinctively conveyed a collective journey of change, renewal and modernity that struck a chord at the time. It rings hollow now.
So where does Labour go from here? In order to reclaim Country aspiration, it’s clear a specific English Labour Party is now urgently needed. It is difficult to see how Labour can move the discussion on without this. Labour’s role in the forthcoming EU referendum also provides an opportunity to put forward an argument that is proud of England, the UK and Europe together.
That “aspiration” encompasses at least three different – and sometimes conflicting – priorities is both its strength and weakness. As such, it can be used by almost everyone to reaffirm almost any pre-existing view. But aspiration, in all three of its guises, is a vital aspect of Labour’s approach. It talks to people at an emotional level and helps politicians to avoid sounding like Business Development Managers. The job of the Labour Party now is to persuade the electorate that we understand not just their frustrations, but their aspirations too.