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.