Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A new language is needed

Social mobility matters because everyone wants their lives to get easier economically, have better health and more fulfilling and enjoyable leisure time.  Everyone wants this and, perhaps even more importantly, wants it for their children.  The vast majority of people would prefer to have this not be at the expense of others.  Indeed most people feel deeply uncomfortable or even guilty living with the knowledge that life is getting harder for others on their estate, in their village, or town and even country.

It is a complete and utter nonsense, therefore, for the Labour party to use the language of class divisions and the politics of envy.  Our language is really important – if people think we want to make everyone standard class rather than everyone first class, we lose them.  Yes people are against the bedroom tax because they see it is unfair and a penalty on the poor; but they are also against the mansion tax because they see that as unfair and a tax on the fortunate.  Everyone would like to be one of the fortunate one day.  Standing for ‘the many, not the few’ is OK if you are happy to be in ‘the many’ and stay in ‘the many’ – but it does not speak to those who aspire to the lifestyle of the ‘the few’.

The Labour party needs to find a new language to express its commitment to wealth creation, to creating the opportunities for equality, and for fairness and justice.  Our new language needs to speak about quality provision and outcomes of public services rather than speak to method and process of delivery: when sick people want to be treated in a timely manner and to have quality care – how that is delivered is not at the forefront of their minds.  We need to find new formations of words to express how highly we value service and care of the vulnerable together with the contributions from the intellectually and economically strong which make that possible.

The old political language needs to be buried as it no longer speaks to the people of Britain.  We are all tired of hearing about ‘hard-working families’. For a lot of the middle class this simply means working-class, and for all of us who work hard it sounds patronising.  I aspire, as does just about everyone I know, to work less hard.  Labour women have seemed unable to talk to women like me for far too long – they are wedded to an agenda which says women issues are childcare. This ceased to be a ‘women’s issue’ around the turn of the century and to families like mine it makes Labour look anti-feminist and deeply old-fashioned.  Why not address agendas around how to support one income families and families without extended family networks?

The British people are fundamentally fair and decent and we need to find a language that meets their aspirations.  A new political language for a renewed Labour party which talks of ‘us’, the compassionate, astute and wise, who aspire for a better life for ourselves and for fairness and justice for all – and that values wealth creation.


Ros McMullen is chief executive of an academy trust and a member of the Labour party


Based on remarks made at Progress annual conference 2015

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Ros McMullen

is an academy principal and a member of the Labour party


  • Ross, I have made reference to the use of ‘language’ on many other occasions when talking about the Labour party, and in politics itself.

    You rightfully refer to social mobility, which I, like many, will understand its importance in neighbourhoods, community and the wider society. However, the language adopted by ALL political parties – at the election and still using it after the event – is “working for hard working people”. I make no apology for making this point… but shouldn’t the Labour party be proactive in defending and supporting the aspirations of all groups, including those who have been failed and remain challenged amid the goals they desperately seek? I think so. Does this not reflect strong leadership where as it confronts what is tough and challenging – instead of doing what is easy by not facing the obstacles that many seek support with?

    This, the Labour party still has a long way to go. The ASPIRATION nation has to be reignited, but the language used needs to reflect this BIG goal – sought not just by politicians eagerly objective towards “business”, but also challenged groups who too seek improved lifestyles… and are damn well willing to fight towards achieving this goal… with the ‘RIGHT’ local policies and practices.

    So, let us INSPIRE others with our Dynamism, but let us not forget that the policy failings that created a recession has meant that casualties are still challenged and seek CHANGE. Oh yes, the recession that NOT ONE politician or news media outlet wanted to mention – nor talk about those viable small businesses – and those bold people – jobs, and homes taken from many.

    Thus, maybe, a forward step has to start by acknowledging that casualties still exist(?)

  • My god are we really now using phrases like the ‘politics of envy’. I’ve spent what seems like a lifetime arguing with the smug rich who defend their privilege with phrases like that, and now it seems I have to argue with fellow party members. I don’t disagree with many of the points about the language we use, but surely we need to start from a different point than assuming everyone wants to be wealthy. What kind of world do we want? One where aspiration is about ‘getting on’ financially and damn the consequence for other people and the planet? Surely we need to start redefining what the good life means, stressing co-operation, community and sustainability. And this isn’t about language but how we choose to be active in our communities, build alliances with other, use our civic power to envisage different towns and cities, defining a new capitalism that is less about exploiting the earth that using entrepreneurial energy for the common good. Otherwise we might as well be a lite version of the Tories. How uninspiring.

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