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The politics of aspiration is dead: Laurie Penny on the new, defeatist rhetoric

No political party can now promise social mobility – instead politicians push the rhetoric of revenge.

A curious thing has happened to the terminology of political pleading. It has happened suddenly, as desperate elected representatives across the developed world realise that things are not going to get better, that they have shafted core voters and sold out the king-making middle classes. Over the past few months, the language of aspiration has almost entirely disappeared, replaced with a more patronising dialect of austerity and suffering.

Nick Clegg's new appeal to "Alarm-clock Britain", the hard-pressed lower-middle classes over whose fickle allegiance at the ballot box mainstream parties have been squabbling for 40 years, is couched in the language of sobriety, of knuckling down and weathering the storm, as if the current economic climate were a natural phenomenon rather than a deliberate choice on the part of the political elite to fund the lassitude of the rich at the expense of the poor.

Every political party is doing this, their focus groups and spinsters working overtime to find out what could tamp down the resentment of these newly bitter core constituents. Ed Miliband has already nabbed "The Squeezed Middle", a phrase lifted directly from the Clinton phrasebook. This frantic co-sloganeering makes British parliamentary parties sound a little like teenage boys trying desperately to think up new, cool names for their generic bedroom guitar bands: Squeezed Middle sounds really sick, but that's already taken, so we'll go with Alarm Clock Britain, we can always change it later.

Historically, the way to woo these voters, the voters who are employed, but barely, are solvent, but barely, and who just barely have the sense that politics can work for them, is to appeal to their self-interest. These were the people who voted Tory in 1979 and 1992 because they wanted lower taxes and a party in government that spoke the language of aspiration, the language of social climbing and self-betterment at the expense of others.

"Aspiration", however, has been quietly erased from the political lexicon. This is not because "Alarm-clock Britain" is no longer aspirational, but because there is so little to aspire to any more. No political party now can promise social mobility and any party that reminds the middle classes of the improvements in personal circumstances they were so recently guaranteed is going to have a riot on their hands before the year is – oh, wait.

Instead, the appeal to "Alarm-clock Britain" is being couched in the rhetoric of revenge, focusing on the coalition's punitive benefit cuts for those less fortunate than the lower-middle classes, whose sense of shared social responsibility has been eroded progressively over three decades of anti-welfare propaganda. This approach is the traditional strategy of neoliberal governments in crisis, a direct appeal to the selfish hindbrain, the part that votes for low taxes and bad television, the part that votes for a quiet life, the part that votes to fuck other people over and smile about it afterwards.

This approach has consistently polled positively for centre-right administrations over the past 20 years. The shift away from "aspirational" rhetoric, however, tells us a few very important things. It tells us that the coalition is getting desperate. It tells us that they're going all out to wrench the political conversation away from their recent decision to protect bankers' bonuses and destroy public education and welfare spending, and it tells us that they're frightened they're going to lose the propaganda war. It tells us that those in the know are fully aware that things are going to get worse, possibly much worse, because if any party could promise the king-making lower-middle classes social mobility at the moment, they would be doing it. Most immediately, it tells us that, in all likelihood, Westminster is getting ready for a general election. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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