"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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories