Thursday, 6 September 2012

Aspirational Britain lies waiting to be claimed

Who’d be David Cameron right now? Mired in political treacle, this week he is trying to divert attention away from his problems with a reshuffle, and wrest back the initiative by lots of serious-sounding pronouncements about economic growth which is proving highly elusive. The public doesn’t seem to be very impressed by him or his coalition at the moment but, then again, neither does his increasingly restive party.

David Cameron’s first problem is that, although he tries to entice his backbenchers with some right-wing soundbites and a few reshuffle sops such as the promotions of Chris Grayling and Owen Patterson, he is forced to tread a line between the centrist husky-hugger and the Thatcherite Brussels-basher, with the result that he is believed by neither side. And, as Iain Martin points out, his hardline economic approach is not necessarily even shared by the Tory right.

Next, it is also useful to note that that Tory right is not what it used to be, either: the “squires from the shires” of yore are a lot less representative of the average backbencher than the self-made businessman or the corporate exec who worked his way up. The hinterland of this new breed is meritocratic, not noblesse oblige; and they do not necessarily think that this Etonian deserves his place in history, after a few years in public affairs and a lot more as a Westminster insider.

Indeed, talking of the right: on observing the US elections, the Daily Express’ sharp political correspondent, Patrick O´Flynn, last week reflected what Cameron could learn from them: that the “first UK party to choose as leader a decent, self-made, down-to-earth, pro-striver leader will get massive momentum”.

He’s right, but the observation is not just for right-wingers. There’s a universal lesson, in that the British electorate is clearly fed up with career politicians, and would like to elect people who they see as appreciating their aspirations.

A simple fact seems to lie unaddressed by politicians: people still want to get on in life, just as they always have done. And they want politicians who understand that. It’s called aspiration, and in Labour we used to understand it.

Why is aspiration important? Because it includes most of us, in one sense or another. It has self-evidently been a major driver of politics for a very long time, and all recent prime ministers on both sides have reflected that. Love or hate her, Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter, was nothing if not aspirational. As was Major, the Brixton boy.

Blair, on the other hand, was a public­-schoolboy, but Labour; he rolled up his sleeves and flattened his vowels to put a believable case for aspiration at the core of his politics. The old hands of Trimdon Labour Club warmed to him in a genuine way it is difficult to imagine happening with a figure of the Cameron mould.

Brown, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, was acutely aware of the importance of aspiration – one has only to look at the relentless “hard-working families” slogans from the campaigns he led. More importantly, perhaps, the person who understood it most was the much-missed Philip Gould, as the Economist observedon his death.

Going back further, if “Grocer” Heath, Wilson and Callaghan were perhaps not so in tune with the aspirational classes, they were all at least from modest backgrounds. In other words, before Cameron, arguably the last prime ministers with a similar handicap in engaging the aspirational voter were the aristocrats MacMillan and Douglas-Home, who left office almost a half-century ago. And in Cameron’s time, the age of deference is long past.

It is easy not to believe Cameron on aspiration, because he is so self-evidently posh. To say so is not class war; it is merely observing his weakness. It is not difficult to see that spending one’s weekends in large houses in the Oxfordshire countryside is unlikely to lead to genuine empathy with Britain’s strivers. No matter how many Smiths albums you listen to.

Notably, he seems even less in touch with the aspirational classes since the loss earlier this year of his strategy chief, Steve Hilton. Hilton was not just Cameron’s man for thinking outside the box, but the clever son of Hungarian immigrants who worked his way via a school scholarship to Oxford and beyond. Hilton “gets” aspiration.

In contrast, Cameron realises it’s important to sell aspiration to the public, but can never quite close the sale. And that is largely because of their perception of who he is.

So where, then, is the leader who appeals to the aspirational of Britain now? Those who want to get on, and are prepared to work hard to get there? The people, in short, that Labour lost touch with in the 1980s and then reconnected with in the 1990s?

Ironically, Nick Clegg is the only mainstream politician who spotted this gap in the market. However, his execution was abysmal: it was through his stomach-churning “Alarm Clock Britain” foray, and no-one really believed it from the equally posh Clegg, either. Nearly two years on, he lies shorn of credibility with his party and the electorate, as Martin Kettle mercilessly observed recently. Conclusion: the Lib Dems seem unlikely to connect with the aspirational vote any time soon, either.

But, frustratingly, Labour does not seem to do much better. Most of its senior positions are, like the other parties, held by career politicians, not grafters.

Ed Miliband talks engagingly about the “squeezed middle”; but, at the same time, Labour can appear down on business and look paternalistic or judgemental, rather than enabling, towards it, as the pamphlet Labour’s Business reasoned. And it’s not clear if it’s really the same demographic, either.

Being disengaged from business worries the aspirational voter: they see a Labour party not really understanding the world they live and work in. Ed Miliband talks about fulfilling the “British promise” - that a family should do better than the previous generation - but the recipe for getting there is still unclear.

No, the result of the politics of all three parties is that the aspirational classes seem simply to have switched off from politics altogether: a plague on all your houses. But they remain a fundamental part of the electoral equation, and the door to them is open.

The conduct of the government is so focused on the internal politics of the coalition, as exemplified in the reshuffle, that Cameron has ignored the opportunity.

If Labour can only engage with them again, it might look forward to a victory at the next election, rather than a result that is currently anyone’s guess.

Philip Gould would surely have approved.

This post first published at Labour Uncut, and selected for Progress' What We're Reading

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