Surely aspiration drives our politics? We aspire for our children to do better than we did ourselves. We aspire for our communities to do well, and we believe the best way of securing all of this is through working together because we achieve more together than we ever do alone.
We should never let the Conservatives put Labour off the scent of aspiration, but this is what they are trying to do. In his 2013 budget speech, George Osborne talked of an ‘aspiration nation’. Michael Gove referred to the opponents of his education reforms as the ‘enemy of promise’. This is the new landscape the Conservatives are painting: Labour is ‘anti’, Conservatives are ‘pro’. They are attempting to turn the ‘forces of conservatism’ on its head.
The Tories will continue to speak the language which puts them on the side of ‘strivers’ even though, in reality, they are not. The Conservative ship of government sails the seas, its crew in a constant state of mutiny, pushing apart the waves, setting one community against the other because they only really believe in aspiration for some. Divide and rule, ‘strivers’ versus ‘shirkers’, where once it was the deserving versus the undeserving poor, because that is how the Conservative party has always sailed. If your tactics are divide and rule, you must, by default, want to see aspiration for some, not all: security for some, insecurity for others.
However, people may believe their rhetoric if there is not a profound Labour alternative.
We heard the beginnings of an alternative strategy, under the banner of One Nation, in a speech Labour’s policy coordinator Jon Cruddas made to the Resolution Foundation. He was correct to say that Labour’s tradition is about ‘earning’ and ‘belonging’. He was also correct to point out that earning was not just about financial income but also about earning respect, and that belonging was about the ‘deep desire for the familiar, and the parochial; the ordinary.’ And who can disagree when he said: ‘One Nation Labour seeks to tell a plausible and compelling story of national renewal and transformation.’
Communities like those of the north-east of England, where I am a member of parliament, with its rich dialect, use the language of belonging where ‘wor’ means ‘our’ and to say of your brother or son ‘wor lad’ is to be proud of the familiar and makes the parochial and the ordinary feel special. Earning was more than pounds, shillings and pence, because to earn respect at the coalface was vital.
Cruddas’ speech drew strength from community schemes similar to those established towards the end of the 19th century among the coalmining communities of County Durham. It is a strong heritage and for many years it was a way of life, one many miners wanted to leave behind. For those among us from that heritage who were miners or, in my case, the son of a miner, we thought that era had gone. With the increase in the number of foodbanks, public services rolled back and community cohesion threatened, I do not see the return of those days as halcyon; I view them with dread. Because the other side of the ‘familiar’ was the poverty; my experience of the ‘parochial’ was the school with the outside toilets; and for my father the ‘ordinary’ was the choice of working down the pit or working on the farm.
Belonging and earning are important, but they are also not enough. They are two parts of aspiration and Labour’s tradition. I believe there is a third: owning. Owning is important and it is wrong of those, like me, who own to say to those who do not that it is not. I believe the majority of people aspire to own their home. However, the government’s ‘Help to Buy’ initiative will not help stimulate housebuilding, but will help to stimulate house price inflation, another way of ensuring aspiration for some. Labour’s way should be to ‘Build to Buy’ and ‘Build to Rent’, creating a mixed economy of housing to nurture aspiration and strengthen communities. I also believe people want to have ownership of, as well as belong to, their community through, say, their public services or community groups. To say ‘our community’ raises issues other than belonging and owning, such as duty, rights and responsibilities.
Alan Milburn, in a speech to the Fabian Society in January 2005, said, ‘if earning more is one side of the coin, owning more is the other … owning assets creates a buffer in times of crisis … it enables people to act independently and make their own choices.’ He also spoke of One Nation: ‘our task is to rebuild the New Labour coalition around “One Nation politics” that recognise, while life is hard for many, all should have the chance to succeed.’ Milburn is also correct.
We should remember too all Labour has done that is good to ensure those from our heritage were given the opportunity to move on, for whom foodbanks, co-ops and self-help schemes are not even a folk memory. They will be voting at the next election and they are our people too. Aspiration is not two-sided, it is three-dimensional. Earning, belonging and owning are the three sides of aspiration. To remove ‘owning’ from the Labour lexicon is like trying to construct a triangle with only two corners. Labour should therefore not disown ownership.
Labour’s reflex, and quite rightly so in a period of austerity, is to help those who cannot help themselves. But it should not be the party’s only reflex. Labour’s purpose is to champion those who are aspiring as well as those who want to aspire, because they are our people too. That is why to deny ownership as important to Labour supporters is to deny human nature – the 1980s ‘right to buy’ scheme proved the point. Ownership has always been a contentious issue for some in the Labour party. Ownership can be viewed from an anti-materialist, sackcloth and ashes perspective. This is not healthy because it blanks out the natural sentiments of millions of our supporters, mistakes working-class culture and understates the benefits of people and families having their own stake in society.
If earning is about more than earning a wage, then ownership is about more than owning a house. There is more to owning than bricks and mortar. For example, to have a capital asset for most people is more reassuring that relying on the state. Pensions can offer security in retirement, workplace pension funds are major investors in UK plc and millions of workers just do not realise how much ownership they have in British business. People want to see their public services reformed in such a way that they still feel collective ownership of the NHS or, as Milburn argues, in education where schools should be given the chance to become autonomous through a variety of models including academies, trusts, parent-owned or community-controlled schools. People should have ownership of the welfare state so they know the system works for them, because those who contribute are also those who benefit.
In the Purple Book Caroline Flint argued that we should consider equity release to transfer assets from one generation to the next. Tristram Hunt talked about banks providing incentives to capitalise fledgling mutuals, and employee share-ownership being reformed so that all employees of a firm benefit and not just those on executive pay. One Nation Labour would also champion private sector ownership from the shop corner proprietor, window cleaner and plumber to high-tech start-ups. All our plans should be driven to create the ability to earn, the space to belong and the confidence to own, underpinned by Labour values.
We want our children to earn respect and earn more than the living wage. We want them to live in a community where they belong and do not feel left out. We want them to be independent and own their own home. Owning is something which can also make us feel secure and belong to the mainstream, and it should be something we all have the right to do and feel comfortable about doing.
The Conservatives will also say this, but their version of aspiration, more often than not, mutates into greed. That is why their quest for the ‘big society’ does not resonate. A tax cut for millionaires and a bedroom tax for the poor is not the politics of One Nation, but the politics of a little Britain.
One Nation Britain will look after those who cannot, and encourage those who can. A One Nation Britain will not just be about earning and belonging. It will also be about ownership, because, if it is not, One Nation Labour will be comparable only to a coalfield dialect spoken by a minority. One Nation Labour is to earn, belong and to own. That is Labour’s new mantra for the 21st century.
Phil Wilson MP is co-editor of The Politics of Solutions, from which this article, Earning, belonging and owning: The Labour tradition of aspiration, is taken.
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