In his piece in The Guardian today, positioning himself as a contender for leadership of the Labour Party, Chuka Umunna wrote:
Our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did, to get that better job, to move from renting to owning, to take the family on holiday, to move from that flat to that house with a garden.
It echoes what Tony Blair has said, demanding that Labour shift back to the “centre” of British politics (as if that was a fixed point hasn’t shifted dramatically rightward since he became leader) to be the party of ambition.
Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care. “Hard-working families” don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it.
This sounds great but what does it mean?
- Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.
- The lack of social mobility hasn’t changed since the 1970s.
- There’s evidence that the problem is getting worse.
- Inequality is the main factor in reducing the chances of upward social mobility, and Britain is one of the most unequal developed economies in the world.
So what does it mean to offer people “aspirational” policies?
It seems to me that the policies that people like Blair, Umunna and Kendall have been objecting to today are the policies that sought to address inequality. Looking at Labour’s policy offer at the last election, that “anti-aspiration” agenda they appear to be criticising include policies like:
- Making the rich (like non-doms) pay taxes they’ve avoided.
- Introducing modest tax increases on the very wealthiest.
- Taxing inherited wealth, which institutionalises inequality.
- Making businesses carry some of the load that poorly paid jobs have placed on the state.
So we have a situation where, if you ignore the sub “American-dream” rhetoric, the opportunity for young people today to improve their life chances are as low today as they’ve been at any time since the Second World War. At the core of those declining opportunities has been increasing inequality. Therefore, failing to address inequality reduces notions of aspiration and ambition to, at best, empty phrases and, at worst, part of a lie that keeps people in their place.
The “aspiration” that Umunna and Blair are so keen on Labour embracing is, without the guts to tackle inequality, simply a shield to preserve the wealth of those who are already more than comfortable. The handful of lottery winners those who do improve their lot are held up to shame those who “just haven’t worked hard enough” to better themselves even though the system is fundamentally rigged against ambition.
Labour should be the party of aspiration. But aspiration isn’t enough. People have to have real opportunities to achieve the goals to which they aspire. And, if we’re serious about that kind of ambition, we have to be serious about tackling inequality.