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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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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.