"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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle