First published in Anticipations, the Young Fabian journal | Volume 18, Issue 4 | Summer 2015
The election result was categorical from the voters and harsh to the Labour party. Hate the Tories, as we do, there is no denying that David Cameron and George Osborne received two million more votes than Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. The latter even lost his seat. Miliband resigned from the leadership.
While many try to complicate the problem and spread round the blame one truism confronts Labour: no party has ever won an election behind on leadership and behind on economic competence. Sort one and Labour is back in the running. Sort both and we are winning. But how?
The post-election debate within Labour focused on ‘aspiration’. Labour must appeal to those not likely to pay the mansion tax and unlikely to be on zero hour contracts. Middle incomes, middle classes, middle England, however you want to put it. Aspiration is the key.
In Ilford North, where I live and spent the majority of the short campaign, has a majority of 589. It was the biggest swing against the Tories and the tenth and final gain from Cameron’s party on 7 May 2015. One-third of the Labour vote there is from a voter pool that Mosaic – Labour’s targeting model – calls ‘Asian attainment’. This description gave the campaign the courage to talk to the voters we had, not the ones the Labour party might have wanted and were speaking to nonetheless. Wes Streeting is now their member of parliament because in the campaign he spoke about the concerns of people – of all races – who live in three-bedroom houses in suburban outer London. They all live in the ‘middle’, however you define it. As Streeting proved, aspiration is not the preserve of one racial group, socioeconomic demographic nor political party. It is the key to winning.
The post-election debate has hollowed out the term so much, former deputy prime minister John Prescott remarked, ‘What the hell does that mean, “aspiration”?’ Those who genuinely believe it is the key to a majority for Labour worry that the party has forgotten what it means too.
For Prescott and anyone else unclear about how Labour gains an ‘aspirational offer’, I provide two tests for any given policy.
First, would you look down at a newborn baby and want it for them?
Parents will want for their children a higher education degree, owning their own home, setting up a small business. I don’t believe a parent has ever looked down at their new child and thought, ‘One day, you could do an apprenticeship’. I am not saying that a good, comprehensive and effective apprenticeship policy should not go in a party’s manifesto but it is not a policy for aspirational voters, it is a ‘get into government and get on with it’ policy.
The problem for Labour between 2010-15 was this: while it focused on the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ it as though the party had – at best – forgotten the original 50 per cent that Tony Blair had hoped would reach higher education.
The result was that it look like it wanted different things for other people’s children to their own. Who would have believed that had the child of any frontbencher from 2010-15 come home from school one day saying ‘Daddy/mummy I want to do an apprenticeship when I grow up’, the answer would have been anything other than, ‘That’s nice, now go upstairs and do your homework (‘cos you are going to university)’. No one. Labour MPs will want the best for their kids; collectively we must want to best for every child. Nothing short will suffice.
The second test is: Does this provide the step-change that your family needs to prosper – an extra room, a better way to get to work, much-needed time with the family – but you fear struggling to pay for from the monthly salary, and fear too paying for with debt?
The former MP for Inverclyde, the late David Cairns, coined this the ‘conservatory principle’. Talking about his former boss Gordon Brown, he used the issue to capture how the then government’s failure to understand swaths of Britain who just wanted their hard work to make their families lives that bit better, more prosperous and secure. They knew government could not do it for them, but why wasn’t it helping? His warning was ignored and Labour sank to 29 per cent of the vote.
Many Labour people deride the manifestations of these aspirations – a conservatory, a new car, the much-needed family holiday, a bigger house. But, as Douglas Alexander said in The Purple Book, ‘The holiday, the house … can be about far more than the material. The holiday might be the one time we get to spend the hours with our kids that our parents never questioned. The house is a project, an inheritance and a guarantee against disaster.’ What these families are aspiring for is the security that it will not go wrong. This we must understand.
These two tests should be a guide for Labour. Not the gateway that all policy should pass through – obviously not. It should stand for ending zero-hour contacts and abolishing the bedroom tax (themselves blocks to the aspirations of some of the most in need). But when the party is putting forward an ‘aspirational offer’ these two tests could stop the result going the same way as May 2010 and 2015. Got right, they could turn a harsh lesson for Labour into a historic opportunity for Labour – to be back in government and make Britain’s aspirations comes true.
Richard Angell is director of Progress