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Aspirations to power

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The subject of aspiration has long been an uneasy one for Labour. The Party has been out of power for much of its existence, more so than the Conservatives, and more than either the American Democrats, or the Victorian-era Liberal party. The reasons for this are complex, but one enduring factor has been its difficulty in sustaining an aspirational cross-class appeal.

As early as the 1950s, both Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan, though leaders of fiercely rival factions within the party, had a tendency to dismiss the emerging new domestic consumer goods as ‘gadgets’, symbolizing a broader socialist disengagement from the rapidly emerging societal ‘affluence’. Affluence was recurrently seen by many in the party as a threat, whether because of its creation via the capitalist system, or the supposedly morally corrosive effect of its glossy superficiality. But this was a serious missed opportunity. The centre-left could have appropriated some of the electoral benefits of association with aspiration by defining it in more positive, socially co-operative terms.

What have been the reasons for this repeated error? Class was one. There was consistently a sense that aspiration was somehow ‘Other’, whether materially beyond reach, from the point of view of the party’s labourist working class culture, or ideologically unpalatable, in the eyes of its middle-class intellectuals. Hence, the caricatures of uniformly malign capitalists, evident, for instance in leading Fabian Sidney Webb’s 1923 denunciation of the ‘sinister dominance … of the private interests of the owners of great masses of wealth’.

Connected to this was a longstanding mistrust within the wider progressive intelligentsia of the spread of suburbia. ‘Politically [suburbia] is a greater burden on the nation than the slum’, wrote the New Liberal thinker Leonard Hobhouse in 1904, lamenting the electoral success of villa Conservatism under Lord Salisbury, those ‘feverish [suburban] hordes’, agreed Charles Masterman. The left-wing film director Mike Leigh’s iconic social commentary play, Abigail’s Party, first televised in 1977, powerfully portrayed the insecurities and pretentiousness of the newly emerging middle class world of home-owners and computer-operators. Yet, almost entirely absent was any sense of countervailing suburban virtues, of people who had striven to rise.

In its adoption, from 1994, of a more engaged approach to the subject of aspiration, ‘New Labour’ deserves significant credit. Now, the suburban middle class were once again reclaimed as ‘our people’, as Tony Blair told the party’s 1995 conference. Aspiration could be spoken of as something in harmony with social conscience and well-funded public services.

Though, there were also some fundamental intellectual shortcomings in this evolving ideological pairing. Although Blair had revitalised the public services, he became increasingly loathe to speak positively of an ethic of public service, increasingly preferring to advocate ‘getting business ideas into public service practice’. If this sat uneasily with his party, it also seemed strangely at odds with the very notion of a ‘balance’ between state and market which lay behind his own third way.

The challenge now, therefore, may be for the party to explore new understandings of aspirational politics which move on from both the under-appreciation of aspiration apparent before New Labour, and the over-esteem of a too narrowly individualistic, macho definition of it into which New Labour later degenerated. History suggests there may be grounds for optimism that such a sophisticated synthesis can be forged. For whilst it certainly shows Labour frequently struggling to engage with aspiration, a historical observer might be just as struck by how progressive politics has adapted aspiration to its purposes at those most pivotal moments, when the country has been most ready for, and open to social change.

In 1906, in the case of the Liberal Party, then in 1945, 1964 and 1997, through Labour, election victories for the leading progressive party (in three out of the four cases large ones) have been followed by governments implementing substantial reforms. These reforming governments all managed to build both a rhetorical message and a policy agenda that made them seem more architects of a national vision of fairness and opportunity than sectionalist, class-based pursuers of their own interest. All, in their way, blended meritocratic with egalitarian-collectivist impulses. The 1945-51 Labour government grafted socialism onto a New Liberal outlook, symbolised by its implementation of the Liberal William Beveridge’s landmark 1942 report on social insurance, and the maintenance of its belief in a balance between individual responsibility and social provision.

Labour’s new Prime Minister from 1964, Harold Wilson skilfully bridged the duality pulling at him, egalitarian socialism on the one hand, the wider 1960s’ mood for meritocratic scientific, technological and cultural modernization on the other, presenting them as mutually reinforcing. Stressing that his ‘new Britain will be a Britain of opportunity’, Wilson explained that this would both combat inequalities and enable the ‘keen and thrusting’ to advance. Central to this double mission was educational expansion, epitomising that social democratic aspirationalism (replicated under Blair), in which the extension of opportunity through collective provision was expected to be matched by the individual responsibility of pupils and students to seize those opportunities.

Aside from education, much reduced in the league table of priorities of both the main parties in recent years, a social democratic aspirational politics for the 2020s might also foreground other neglected policy areas, notably housing. There is no contradiction, for example, between a reinvigorated agenda of homeownership, with active intervention to enable younger people to join the property ladder and a much-enhanced social housing safety net. Both power and responsibility for economic and political decision-making could be imaginatively redistributed away from London.

Labour ponders how simultaneously to recover support from the diversely disaffected trio of Scotland, middle England and the deindustrialised North. Yet, if recent years have shown the danger in complacently underestimating the challenges confronting progressive politics, there are equal dangers in overlooking newly emerging opportunities, and succumbing to the unremittingly gloomy psychology which has been a further longstanding obstacle to Labour engagement with notions of aspiration.

Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 American presidential election is an event which many would have considered inconceivable only two years ago. Donald Trump’s support in the ‘rust belt’ states proved far from unreachable for the Democrats. If modern British history shows anything, it is that an aspirational agenda, generously and progressively defined, has an appeal which bridges many of the apparently immutable divides, between young and old, city and small town, and even nations.

This piece is part of our series, Rethinking Labour’s Past, which looks at Labour’s history with a eye to its future. The book of the same name, which features an essay by the author of this blog is available here, and the previous blog in the series, by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves can be read here.