Friday, 21 August 2015

What is 'aspiration'?

Everybody has heard of 'aspiration'. Its the word on all our politician's lips. Every political party in the UK must appeal to 'aspirational voters' otherwise it is doomed to permanent opposition. That is a fact - isn't it? At least it is what we are frequently told. The problem is that we first need to understand what aspiration is before we can determine how important it is as a measure of how people intend to vote.

For the political class who have swallowed the idea that appealing to aspiration is essential to win elections, aspiration means 'getting on' - or that is how my parents generation would have described it. It means you want to earn more, live in a bigger house in a more desirable area, have more foreign holidays, and generally get richer, and richer. In a conference speech in 2012 David Cameron sought to present himself  as the leader of the 'aspiration nation'. Here is a quote from the Guardian:
"In a sometimes defensive speech to his party conference in Birmingham, he sought to fend off the image of his party as a defender of the rich, saying: "We are the party of the want to be better off," and insisting his goal was to spread, not defend, privilege." [my italics].
David Cameron - has the wrong values
But there is a problem with all his.  For a start how many people don't want to be better off? Not many by my reckoning, and that applies across the spectrum of people in society from rich to poor. So you could argue that saying you are the party of people who want to be better off is stating the bleeding obvious, or not saying anything much at all. But this is politics and of course there is an agenda here. People who 'want to be better off' are a particular group - they are in Tory terms the 'strivers' and, as we know, in Tory Britain, if you are not a 'striver', you must be a 'skiver'. 

So the word 'aspiration' has become particular neoliberal framing of those who 'aspire'. It divides the nation into those who are worth something and those who are worthless. The 'hardworking families' on the one hand and the 'benefit scroungers' on the other. And 'hardworking families' are those that the share Tory values of 'getting on' even if it means trampling on others to be 'better off'. The poor, the low paid and the unemployed, public sector workers - who are of course just a bunch of jobsworths - can be written off. 

A perfect example of an 'aspirational' person trampling on others to 'get on' would be someone who took up the right-to-buy their council house. They get a public asset at a knock-down price and by doing so they deny the right to live in that house to others who need social housing. They can then go on to sell the house at a handsome profit and when they do it will almost certainly be bought by a landlord who rents out the property at an exorbitant rent. And that is exactly what has happened with many thousands of council houses sold as a result of this Tory policy, and the outcome is a housing crisis. So much for the 'aspirations' of these Tory voters.

Aspiration means a lot more to me, and many others in the UK, than simply 'getting on' and personal gain, because my aspiration is to live in a better society, one which has genuine equality and one in which we don't live beyond our means environmentally. A society in which everyone has access to decent housing, meaningful and rewarding work, and is able to live in a wholesome environment. That kind of society will make everyone better off, and that's what aspiration ought to be about, something which reflects the right values rather than the narrow, materialistic and selfish values of David Cameron, the Tory Party - and Blairite Labour. Its not the kind of society that can be built by making a few more people 'better off' by policies like right-to-buy. What's more its the kind of society that lots of people would like to vote for if they were given the chance. 

We need to reject the neoliberal framing of 'aspiration' and replace it with one which reflects the values of social, economic, and environmental justice. And if you aspire to these values like I do, you can help to realise them by voting for the Labour Party. 

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