"Poverty of aspiration" – a phrase that should have gone out with Victorian frock coats

Three short words that try to apportion blame.

There’s a lot that annoys me about the Labour Party – well I’m a Green, so that mightn’t be very surprising – but one phrase that is a particular favourite of Labour education spokespeople and more than the odd backbencher is guaranteed to raise my blood pressure to rage levels: "poverty of aspiration".

It is a phrase that in three short words seeks to blame the victims of austerity, those left stranded by the abandonment of the British manufacturing industry, trapped in over-crowded poor social housing or impossibly expensive private rental dumps and at under-resourced schools, people who through medical accident or unfortunate fate need the support of decent benefit payments being told to "buck up", "lift your sights", "try harder". (Or sometimes it just tries to blame their children’s teachers for all of the problems of society.)

It would seem to fit better in the mouth of a frock-coated Victorian industrialist, urging the child chimney sweeps to climb faster, rather than a be-suited 21st-century MP, yet somehow Labour just keeps saying it. We've certainly got "poverty of opportunity" that is knocking down our young people (in particular) at every turn. With youth unemployment up 246% in the past year, many well qualified young people – with degrees, work experiences, internships, languages, the lot – are struggling to find work, and when they find it the pay levels are frequently desultory for their skills, with short-term contracts the norm. Labour might like to focus on the NEETs, but even if all of those young people greatly up their skills and training, where are the jobs?

We've got "poverty wages". Why after 13 years of a Labour government was the minimum wage not a living wage, and why were increasing numbers of mature people with work experience finding themselves employed as "apprentices" on a desultory £2.60/hour?

And we've got an awful lot of awful grinding, simple poverty - pretty well everyone on out-of-work benefits to start off with, which meet less than half of the needs ordinary Britons identify as essential to a decent life.

But in my professional, volunteering and personal life, I keep encountering people trying to overcome tremendous disadvantages to build a decent life for themselves - often well-qualified, hardworking people who’ll do practically anything to try to secure a stable, secure, decent life for themselves. What more can they do? What more does Labour want them to do?

There’s another phrase that Labour politicians often use – “social mobility”. And certainly, it’s terribly important that there’s an equal opportunity for a daughter of a binman to become PM as for an upper-class boy educated at Eton (we wish!), but a focus on the chance to move up the ladder ignores the critical problem of how steeply the ladder is slanted and how far apart are its rungs.

When the price of success can be so high, and the cost of failure so great, parents who enjoy advantages in life are getting keener and keener to push their offspring to heights of CV-enhancing achievement in every field, making it harder and harder for children whose parents can’t provide violin lessons on Monday and equestrianism on Tuesday.

And being left behind at age 18, or 16, or 11, or 5, or 3, has higher and higher life penalties. If we take action on equality – raise the tax rate for incomes of over £100K to 50p, crack down on tax evasion and avoidance, work to rein in soaring executive pay and bonuses, make the minimum wage a living wage and ensure benefits provide a basic decent standard of living – then that social mobility is a lot more likely to be loosened up. That’s what we should be focusing on – not simply on trying to provide a route out of poverty for a few individuals who can climb that steep ladder despite the odds.

And it wouldn’t just be social mobility that would be loosened – all of life could be, to the benefit of all. Given we now have the unhappiest children in the developed world, a condition attributed to long working hours, materialism and failure to provide facilities/activities for poorer children - reducing inequality, putting less focus on money and materialism, and more on to a better quality of life for all – would be a huge step forward. And given our high rates of mental ill health and stress among adults, a loosening up of life for all of us would be an excellent idea. So let’s start talking about the need to end poverty (and not just child poverty – all poverty hurts our society), let’s start talking about greatly reducing inequality in our society. Let’s speak not just for the squeezed middle, but also for the squashed, stressed, much-slandered bottom.


If we take action on equality social mobility is a lot more likely to be loosened up. Photograph: Getty Images

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide