Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
13 January 2011

The politics of aspiration is dead: Laurie Penny on the new, defeatist rhetoric

No political party can now promise social mobility – instead politicians push the rhetoric of revenge.

By Laurie Penny

A curious thing has happened to the terminology of political pleading. It has happened suddenly, as desperate elected representatives across the developed world realise that things are not going to get better, that they have shafted core voters and sold out the king-making middle classes. Over the past few months, the language of aspiration has almost entirely disappeared, replaced with a more patronising dialect of austerity and suffering.

Nick Clegg’s new appeal to “Alarm-clock Britain”, the hard-pressed lower-middle classes over whose fickle allegiance at the ballot box mainstream parties have been squabbling for 40 years, is couched in the language of sobriety, of knuckling down and weathering the storm, as if the current economic climate were a natural phenomenon rather than a deliberate choice on the part of the political elite to fund the lassitude of the rich at the expense of the poor.

Every political party is doing this, their focus groups and spinsters working overtime to find out what could tamp down the resentment of these newly bitter core constituents. Ed Miliband has already nabbed “The Squeezed Middle”, a phrase lifted directly from the Clinton phrasebook. This frantic co-sloganeering makes British parliamentary parties sound a little like teenage boys trying desperately to think up new, cool names for their generic bedroom guitar bands: Squeezed Middle sounds really sick, but that’s already taken, so we’ll go with Alarm Clock Britain, we can always change it later.

Historically, the way to woo these voters, the voters who are employed, but barely, are solvent, but barely, and who just barely have the sense that politics can work for them, is to appeal to their self-interest. These were the people who voted Tory in 1979 and 1992 because they wanted lower taxes and a party in government that spoke the language of aspiration, the language of social climbing and self-betterment at the expense of others.

“Aspiration”, however, has been quietly erased from the political lexicon. This is not because “Alarm-clock Britain” is no longer aspirational, but because there is so little to aspire to any more. No political party now can promise social mobility and any party that reminds the middle classes of the improvements in personal circumstances they were so recently guaranteed is going to have a riot on their hands before the year is – oh, wait.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Instead, the appeal to “Alarm-clock Britain” is being couched in the rhetoric of revenge, focusing on the coalition’s punitive benefit cuts for those less fortunate than the lower-middle classes, whose sense of shared social responsibility has been eroded progressively over three decades of anti-welfare propaganda. This approach is the traditional strategy of neoliberal governments in crisis, a direct appeal to the selfish hindbrain, the part that votes for low taxes and bad television, the part that votes for a quiet life, the part that votes to fuck other people over and smile about it afterwards.

This approach has consistently polled positively for centre-right administrations over the past 20 years. The shift away from “aspirational” rhetoric, however, tells us a few very important things. It tells us that the coalition is getting desperate. It tells us that they’re going all out to wrench the political conversation away from their recent decision to protect bankers’ bonuses and destroy public education and welfare spending, and it tells us that they’re frightened they’re going to lose the propaganda war. It tells us that those in the know are fully aware that things are going to get worse, possibly much worse, because if any party could promise the king-making lower-middle classes social mobility at the moment, they would be doing it. Most immediately, it tells us that, in all likelihood, Westminster is getting ready for a general election.