"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.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser