Middle class values: rat race

Aspiring to what?

Blairites are flying the flag for ‘aspiration’ - a subject about which they know nothing, argues Paul Demarty

They’ve got the whole world in their house
They’ve got the whole wide world in their house
They’ve got the whole world in their house
To see the new conservatory

(Half Man Half Biscuit, ‘Paintball’s coming home’)

There is nothing more obnoxious than a Blairite who smells blood; and so it has proven. Since Ed Miliband’s political hara-kiri, slick southern yuppies have been popping up daily amid a sustained, press-backed campaign to correct Miliband’s errors - viz, his enthusiastic lurch towards blood-and-fire, class-struggle socialism.

No, I don’t remember that either, dear reader: but Blairites are strikingly assiduous when it comes to decrying any suggestion that working class people, or even “working families”, ought to be the proper target of a Labour manifesto; for them, as for Tea Party ideologues, such dangerous notions are prima facie evidence of communist sympathies.

The list of rogues gets longer every day: Alan Johnson, Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw - a lone speck of red on the political map of west England in a sea of blue - and, of course, the big man himself, Tony Blair, have trotted out this little narrative. Potential leaders Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt and David Lammy have likewise talked up the ‘centre ground’. Alan Sugar, celebrity adviser to Gordon Brown and long-time business mediocrity, has resigned from the party over its alleged leftward lurch.

Bradshaw wants to “celebrate our entrepreneurs and wealth-creators and not leave the impression they are part of the problem”, so we can have more runaway successes like Sugar. But it is Johnson who brought in the biggest of Blairite catchphrases: “We can no longer relate to [voters] as a party of aspiration. And that was one of the big successes that won us three elections.”

Reclaiming this, apparently, is the road to success in places like Thanet and Hastings. Hunt agrees, blathering on about “Waitrose couples”. Andy Burnham is - god help us - shaping up to be the ‘left’ candidate in the coming contest, but even he ran for the same post in 2010 on a platform of “aspirational socialism”.

Though it is not the subject of this article, it ought to be pointed out up front that this explanation for Labour’s defeat is utter balderdash; Labour lost this election mostly in Scotland, making overall gains elsewhere. A huge part of its safe-seat heartland was amputated overnight. North of the border, moreover, Labour is utterly discredited because of the Blairites, and crucially their unholy alliance with the Tories during the referendum campaign; guff about “wealth-creators” might fly on Fleet Street, but it is likely a harder sell in the Gorbals.

Hastings and Thanet, if they really are so important, have seen major advances for the UK Independence Party, whose voters would have been especially vulnerable to the chauvinist hysteria over a potential deal between Labour and the Scottish nationalists, rather than suffering for a freeze in energy prices or mansion tax. In any case, Labour’s vote held up better than the Tories’ in both Thanet constituencies (though not Hastings).

All of this begs the question: what exactly is this aspiration everyone is so obsessed with? Like everything else, it is a code-word for class for those who do not wish very much to talk about class. Hunt is perhaps the exemplary figure here: a biographer of Friedrich Engels, he probably knows what he is refusing to talk about. Writes Hunt, in an op-ed for The Guardian:

History shows us that combining empathy and entrepreneurialism is how Labour succeeds in office. That is how Labour rebuilt Britain after the second world war … Our language has to endorse business and enterprise, but also champion a sense of national identity which in many parts of the country feels undervalued … In short, a Labour programme built around both wealth creation and cultural affirmation(May 11).

Hunt’s piece as a whole sees him pettifogging around the opposition he talks about here: “wealth-creators”, those who “aspire to climb life’s ladder”; and those “left behind” by globalisation, who feel “dislocated”. By the latter, he means the traditional working class Labour core vote; by the former, he means capitalists.

Or does he? There are a lot of rungs on ‘life’s ladder’, after all; and if he wishes to rehabilitate the Blair years, he presumably (and indeed explicitly) concurs with Johnson: Blair won in middle England, not among capitalists (of which there are few) but the ill-defined middle class. It is, as he said elsewhere, about “Waitrose couples” - presumably today’s equivalent of ‘Mondeo man’ and innumerable other psephological fictions.

The ideology of ‘aspiration’, in fact, is one which erases the difference between middle class supermarket preferences and ownership of the means of production. We are at the mercy of a purely notional teleology, where that packet of organic rhubarb is on an unbroken continuum that passes through owning a first, then a second home, to some distant point of fabulous personal success.

People under the spell of this ideology “aspire to climb life’s ladder” as individuals (or, as Thatcher would put it, “individuals and their families”). Between their condition and that of Steve Jobs (or even Alan Sugar), there stands only an awful lot of bootstrap-pulling and personal graft. It is, needless to say, a fiction: in the case of the classic petty bourgeoisie, the aspirant individual - and his or her family - have to put a lot of effort into running merely to stand still. For the managerial and professional layers, meanwhile, the simple fact remains that there is not a huge amount of room at the top, and thus likewise a great deal of running on the spot.

‘Shy Tories’

The result of this is one of two mindsets - both essentially Tory. The first is simply explicit Toryism - resentment of taxation, of spending on the ‘workshy’, of public-sector workers and their gold-plated pensions at our expense; in short, the small-minded politics of the Daily Mail, aggressively cultivated by the latter and other papers, and pandered to by politicians when it suits them.

The second is that phenomenon much talked about in the last week, the ‘shy Tory’: people who cruelly embarrassed the pollsters by misrepresenting their own voting intentions. We must say that shy Tories’ responsibility for facepalms at YouGov is, as yet, unproven. Yet the phenomenon is real: those whose political instinct is that a Tory vote is somehow dirty, shameful; but who find their wallets dragging them onto the right-hand path.

There is quite a real material basis for it. In short, among the many spoils of national government is considerable control over exactly which localities bear the brunt of cuts; one’s own party’s safe seats can enjoy greater protection than those of the enemy. This process is starting extraordinarily rapidly this term: the Manchester Evening News notes that Greater Manchester’s spending power (an aggregate of council tax takings and central government grants) will fall by £28 million, while Surrey’s will rise by £27 million (May 11). Those in Surrey might find themselves taking it into account when they vote - even in spite of themselves.

There is also the matter of wider political priorities: for example, in spite of the bedroom tax, the last Tory government did not make a serious dent in the housing benefit bill. Nor would we expect them to, for housing benefit is an ingenious method for turning welfare into a state subsidy for private landlords - easily won to a Tory perspective, shy or otherwise. Shy Tories are right to be coy - politics conducted at this level becomes indirect corruption.

The most glaring flaw in the ideology of ‘aspiration’, however, has more directly to do with Waitrose, but is made especially clear in the negative, by Tristram Hunt’s treatment of the working class. He is plain: since working class votes are bleeding to Ukip (another fiction for the most part, but bear with me) and the SNP, Labour must present a compelling sense of national sentiment. The middle class (and the bourgeoisie proper) are thus cosmopolitan, mobile, fluid; the working class is static, localist, tribal and backward.

The historic truth - which Hunt, the historian, ignores - is quite the opposite. The working class movement is not a force of conservatism (except when derailed by the likes of him), but of progress; indeed, of aspiration in a truer, more noble sense than is employed by philistine Blairites.

The ultimate proof of that is its intimate connection, not extinguished despite innumberable defeats, with the politics of socialism: a standpoint from which every advance of the class appears as a step, however small, toward a society free from poverty, in which the full creative capacity of humankind can be unleashed.

Yet there is, as it were, a trickle-down effect, exemplified by the tiny initiatives collective organisations of the class have organised for their members; we think of the workers educational societies, for whom knowledge was not (as it is in the modern technocratic university) merely a necessary acquisition on the way to a degree and a white-collar career, but a matter of power and dignity.

This is a very different definition of aspiration than that pushed by Hunt and his odious Blairite confrères. Of the two, ours is the only definition that is not a travesty of humanity. Some would like us to ‘aspire’ to a mock-Tudor semi in Hampton Wick, with a Smeg fridge full of Waitrose tomatoes; we aspire to the liberation of all humanity.