Labour and the ideology of aspiration

The party’s attempt to promote some relatively centre-left policies during the general election was contradicted by its acceptance of other dominant right-wing discourses

Matthew DonoghueIn the aftermath of an election defeat described by some as the ‘greatest crisis’ the party has ever faced, many key Labour personalities have already offered their analysis of where things went wrong.  One argument that gained early traction was that the party was not able to appeal to those ‘aspirational’ members of society who saw Ed Miliband’s leadership as a nod to ‘Old Labour’ strategies of tax and spend.  There was no incentive, this line of analysis asserted, in such people voting for a party that was likely to penalise their aspiration and entrepreneurship.  The Labour Party was, quite simply, no longer the party for those ‘hard working families’ which ‘wanted to get on’.  Labour’s message and general tone, within a debate dominated by Conservative logic, implied instead that it sought to represent those with no ambition, who would rather collect benefits than go out to work – a reading to which Andy Burnham, the current leadership favourite, has at least in part acquiesced.

Yet Labour’s acceptance of current discourses on aspiration in the general election and now in the leadership battle has put the party in a tricky position.  Rather than allowing it to appeal to those beyond its traditional core base, as was and is presumably the hope, it has instead left the party navigating a series of contradictions.  ‘Aspiration’ in current political discourse is an ideologically loaded term.  It normalises entrepreneurship and competition and therefore legitimises inequality.  Labour is not able to challenge the idea that excessive inequality is a problem if it tacitly accepts as necessary the conditions in which inequality develops. Popularly conceived, ‘aspiration’ is the desire to ‘get on’ and make something of oneself.  Surely, it might be said, no-one in their right mind would argue against such ambition.  Yet, by accepting the implicit understanding of aspiration as driven by a specific notion of success in a market economy, alternative conceptions of the term are shut out.

This is where the contradictions that damaged Labour’s narrative become evident.  Its inability, or refusal, to contest and replace the dominant discourses of the right resulted in the nullification of the party’s centre-left policy programme.  A waning trust in Labour has been cited as one of the many reasons for its poor performance at the election.  In creating this distrust, the party’s apparent incapacity to present a coherent narrative free of these contradictions was a major contributing factor.

Take, for example, the pledge to be tough on immigration.  By tackling a perceived problem with immigration into the UK, Labour hoped both to address a key election issue and appeal to what it saw as a disaffected white working class whose aspirations were presumably suffering as a result of migration.  After all, Labour needed to present itself as a responsible steward of the British nation, but was not able to cite the economy as an example of this commitment (this opportunity having been lost as soon as the party accepted the Conservatives’ austerity agenda, something which was justified in turn as a means of rectifying Labour’s poor handling of the economy while in power).  However, Labour’s position on immigration, rather than stealing support from the Conservatives and UKIP, served actually to reinforce the narratives Labour wanted to co-opt.  The party tried to justify itself by claiming that stricter controls on immigration would in fact help ‘prevent employers undercutting wages by exploiting immigration, and banning agencies from recruiting only from abroad’.  But this simply became a footnote within a wider, broadly anti-immigrant, discourse on immigration.

Speaking even more broadly, Labour’s acceptance of the dominant, centre-right, discourse on aspiration excluded its core base.  Labour can proudly articulate a long history of aspiration: for fairer wages, increased rights in the workplace, universal healthcare, a level playing field and the increased welfare of the nation.  Its acceptance of the dominant discourse instead de-legitimised those whose aspirations were more modest: people stuck in precarious employment striving for job security, those struggling to find a job, or the thousands of people who cannot meet supposedly ‘affordable’ rents, to name a few.

By using the language of the right, the Labour Party implanted the idea that there was little difference between voting red and blue.  What’s more, it was done in a way that makes this implanting unconscious.  As a consequence, it is much harder to present the party as qualitatively different (beyond election pledges written in stone…).  The right of the party may believe that appearing to be too left-wing is electorally disastrous.   Yet the problem is that, by using the language of those to the right of Labour, many are further legitimising such positions.  This erodes Labour’s core support, as occurred through the early 2000s, and can confuse or put off voters by not articulating an alternative vision.

The austerity agenda provides another example of this.  Labour criticised the Conservatives’ approach to austerity, but instead of providing a credible alternative it tacitly accepted and legitimised austerity by committing to slightly less harsh cuts.  As a consequence, much of the debate became focused on who could be trusted most to implement austerity and emphasise responsibility.  Within this dominant discourse, where exactly could Labour promote the more egalitarian policies in its manifesto?

In sum, much has been said already about Labour’s narrative in the wake of its general election defeat, with some, such as Owen Jones, advocating a radical shift in order to jettison the ‘traditional’ language of the left.  Regardless of where one stands in this particular debate, it is hard to refute the broader argument that Labour’s attempt to promote relatively centre-left policies stood in stark contradiction with its acceptance of dominant discourses that favoured the right-wing rhetoric of the Conservatives and UKIP.

Accordingly, in the Labour leadership race that is now unfolding, it is essential that the candidates not only articulate exactly how the party is different from the Conservatives, but do so through forging a new narrative that breaks with dominant discourses and allows Labour to promote its own unique ideology.  It is right and proper that Labour should appeal to the notion of aspiration.  But the party must be clear, deliberate and considered in how it defines the term, ensuring that in the process it does not snub those people whose current aspirations are limited to getting by and surviving, rather than climbing up the ladder.

Matthew DonoghueMatthew Donoghue tweets @drdonoghue.