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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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.