Great Britain

Yes, ‘aspiration’ can be a socialist idea – if the left can rid it of its baggage | Tom Blackburn

There were a few raised eyebrows last week when Rebecca Long-Bailey, at her slick launch event in Manchester, unveiled the cornerstone of her Labour leadership pitch: “aspirational” socialism. It’s fair to say that previous attempts to articulate the two together have failed to convince. Andy Burnham made his own version of “aspirational socialism” the central pillar of his largely forgotten leadership bid in 2010, though the focus of his proposals was more on individual social mobility than any discernible commitment to socialist transformation.

Long-Bailey’s vision of aspirational socialism is evidently more substantial, even if it has yet to be fully fleshed out. In her set-piece speech, she criticised the view, widespread in modern politics, of aspiration as mere social climbing – helping the more fortunate individuals make their way up the career ladder and leaving it at that. Far from being indifferent to individual self-fulfilment, Long-Bailey’s aspirational socialism appears to regard collective uplift and the empowerment of working class and marginalised communities as a necessary precondition for it. Her broader point is that socialists aspire (or at least should aspire) to change society decisively for the better, and not simply to fill their own boots.

Still, there’s something instinctively jarring about this attempt to reconceptualise socialism as aspiration. Under the New Labour governments, and in the years since then, “aspiration” has served as a euphemism for catering to the interests of the middle classes over those of people lower down the social hierarchy. Both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn were often criticised for being out of touch with the aspirations of the upwardly mobile, and for not speaking in a language that would resonate with them. In the wake of Labour’s 2015 election defeat, for example, Miliband was roundly rebuked for, among other failings, having supposedly done too little to appeal to would-be John Lewis shoppers.

The trouble with this discourse on aspiration is that it doesn’t reflect the reality of life in Britain since the financial crisis, whatever relationship it previously bore to it. A survey from the Social Mobility Commission published this week appeared to indicate that social mobility had gone into decline in Britain, with regional inequality a factor; respondents in northern England were more pessimistic about their future prospects than their southern counterparts. Especially among young people stuck in the rental market, talking about aspiration in the old way just sounds like a tasteless joke. Their overriding aspiration is merely to keep their heads above water, and the only mobility they’re experiencing is downward.

Where the Tories once positioned themselves as thrusting torchbearers for aspiration, the actual results of a decade of Tory-led government have made that much more difficult, as Phil Burton-Cartledge has pointed out. Feeble wage growth, runaway house prices and rents, mounting personal debts, the paucity of secure, fulfilling and dignified work, and an increasingly inadequate social safety net have all combined to undermine the aspirations of many who had previously imagined themselves to be on a steady ascent into the ranks of the comfortable middle classes. Thus the Conservative right has been deprived of one of its most potent ideological props, forcing it further down the path of nativism and tawdry culture war.

But even if this sort of individual social mobility were attainable, would it make Britain a fairer, healthier and happier society? The economist Chris Dillow has suggested that prioritising the pursuit of social mobility over that of equality risks lending gaping social inequalities a patina of legitimacy, while piling additional pressure and shame on to those who are unable to make their own way up the ladder.

The odd problematic term has crept into Long-Bailey’s talk of aspiration – she has referred, for instance, to working-class voters aggrieved that other people are getting “handouts”. But she still approaches it more in terms of social empowerment than individual self-improvement. This aspiration to build collective working-class power has been the guiding inspiration of the British labour movement since its foundation. It is a striving – in the face of ferocious opposition, and despite countless defeats and disappointments – to give working people greater control over their lives and surroundings, instead of casting them adrift to fend for themselves, and to create the conditions that allow them to reach their full personal, intellectual and creative potential.

In power, however, Labour has tended to function in a more paternalistic mode, with minimal input from those below. As Ralph Miliband put it, Labourism in government (both local and central) has been “above all concerned with the advancement of concrete demands of immediate advantage to the working class and organised labour”. These have been kept within tightly-drawn boundaries, preventing them from leading in turn to other, potentially more ambitious demands. Long-Bailey’s emphasis on constitutional reform and economic democracy, and her work under Corbyn as an architect of the “green new deal” and alternative models of ownership, point to an encouraging understanding of the need to go beyond these limitations, and of the necessity of doing so.

Long-Bailey hopes that in aspirational socialism she’s found a way to communicate radical ideas in a media environment largely unreceptive to them, and of signalling to Labour’s lost voters that she heeds their concerns. But building a genuinely empowering and aspirational socialism would necessitate a distinct break from the party’s established traditions of administering palliatives from above. What remains to be seen is whether the ideological baggage attached to “aspiration” as a term will allow it to be redefined convincingly by the left, and whether this socialist reappropriation of distinctly Blair-era language can be made to cut through. Long-Bailey’s underlying message is nonetheless correct. Socialism is about transforming society in order to put people in charge of their own lives – and what could be more aspirational than that?

Tom Blackburn is a founding editor of New Socialist