“This is a budget for an ‘aspiration nation’” according to George Osborne just a few week’s ago. The appeal to aspiration has been rolled out a number of times now by senior Conservative party figures. Cameron used it as he unveiled his ‘global race’ analysis during his conference speech. Gove uses it to advance his plans for profit-making in our school system.
The concept of aspiration is an interesting one for British politics. It was a central part of the Thatcher offer: opportunity for all and the right to buy your council house. It was a clear dividing line between Labour and the Conservative party throughout the 1980s. This dividing line was broken when Tony Blair grabbed the mantle of aspiration in the following decade.
It was a masterstroke for Blair but there are good reasons why the Conservative party today make a mistake in using it. On the one hand, what made aspiration such a good frame for early Blair no longer holds: this underlines how bad Cameron and Osborne’s political radar is in using it now. On the other hand, the aspiration frame also illustrates the limits of Blairism in a post financial crisis context.
Firstly let’s look at the factors that made it a good frame for Blair in the mid-to-late 1990s:
- The economy was picking up after years of instability
- The cause of instability was entirely associated with the opposition (Major’s Conservative government)
- Blair was seen as young, new and fresh
- A key concern of voters thinking about switching to Labour was that the party didn’t want to help people get richer and buy their own homes etc
- An incoming Labour government had money to invest in things that made people and companies feel secure, such as public services and infrastructure
Compare these factors to the reality today.
The economy in 2013 is not about to pick up again. Osborne yesterday promised more pain before things get better. Secondly while the coalition has enjoyed some success by blaming everything on Labour (“The mess we inherited” etc) – this is starting to sound worn out.
The reason it sounds worn out is because Osborne inherited an economy growing by 1.2 per cent and then repeatedly had growth predictions downgraded. He has also presided over a double-dip recession in the year of a major global sporting event being held in the UK and has overseen the AAA rating downgraded. With all this and more things going wrong, it is hard to offer aspiration when you are increasingly seen as one of the chief causes of economic failure.
Furthermore where Blair was new and fresh and in opposition, Cameron, Clegg and Osborne already look old, tired and worse of all, are in government. A more crude point is that when people as privileged as Cameron, Clegg and Osborne promise opportunity for all – it doesn’t sound genuine. Thatcher was able to tell a convincing story of a journey from humble beginnings to Downing Street. And while Blair was by no means a working class hero, he wasn’t associated with Eton or the Bullingdon club. The concern that many voters have about the coalition isn’t that they think Cameron, Clegg and Osborne don’t get aspiration; it’s that they think they are only out to help people like themselves. This is a concern compounded by the millionaires’ tax cut.
So on top of the factors that made it work for Blair in the early years, the aspiration frame is also inadequate because it demonstrates the limitations of the Blairite offer. In an era where New Labour promised that everything was new and that the UK was open for business, communities that found it hard to keep up with the pace of change or that saw things get worse and started to feel alienated by it. In part, the Blairite offer was limited because so much of the aspirational lifestyles pursued were actually funded by people taking on more and more private debt. This is an argument made effectively by Jon Cruddas in an article for the renewal journal in 2008.
It is arguable that Blair himself would have understood this and attempted to tap into a more reassuring political frame. As a shrewd political actor he would have sought to tap into the war spirit that still holds resonance in the shared British cultural experience.
Cameron and Osborne may think that they are already doing this by promising short-term pain for long-term gain. But as we’ve seen this story is hard to reconcile with one that draws on aspiration. What it also does is misunderstands part of why the war spirit is such a resonant force. Rationing provides a nice illustration of this.
Rationing during and after the second world war was not only accepted because it showed that we were ‘all in it together’ – rationing also improved the health of millions by guaranteeing them basic levels of nutrition. The consumption of the richest was curbed but that of the poorest was pulled up to a new level of nutrition.
This egalitarian strand runs through over avenues of the war spirit. This is reinforced by the fact that the welfare state was also constructed in the aftermath of the war on a wave of populist egalitarian feeling. This is a story captured and told in the Spirit of ’45 film by Ken Loach. The short-term pain for long-term gain frame worked, in part, then because of its collectivist appeal. This is a million miles away from the dog-eat-dog individualism of Cameron’s Britain.
What this points to is a deeper question about what kind of aspirational offer politicians can convincingly make under conditions of austerity. The evidence considered above suggests that a far more collective form of aspiration will be necessary in order to reassure voters and have cut through in tough economic times.
If the next election is a battle of the political narratives, then the one nation offer seems far better suited to the current socioeconomic reality. But Labour should not be complacent. We are still two years away and things can change dramatically. Just ask the OBR forecasters about that.