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Enabling Aspiration


Owen Jones

For those on the left, aspiration should mean making common cause with those with similar problems, hopes and ambitions.

‘Ambition’ and ‘aspiration’: it's easy to see these as euphemisms for untrammelled free-market dogma, slashing taxes on the rich and generally perpetuating inequality. Basically this approach to ‘aspiration’ goes like this: anybody can make it to the top, if they try hard enough. ‘Success’ is all down to individual effort, meaning that those with talent, ability and a solid work ethic can all rise to top. The corollary of this is that if you are poor, then you are somehow responsible for your plight: you haven't worked hard enough, you're too lazy, or too stupid, or both. Inequality is really just a reflection of how clever or hard-working people are.

But aspiration doesn't have to be used in this way, and as the right have raided the progressive lexicon with words like ‘reform’ and ‘modernise’, perhaps it's time for us to appropriate ‘aspiration’, too. It is a concept which speaks to that innate human need for optimism: that life will get easier, more secure and more comfortable. Technology will develop and improve. Your children will have a better lot in life than you. And so on. If you're on the left, aspiration should mean making common cause with those with similar problems, hopes, ambitions. By using your collective power together, you can each improve your individual lot.

Following Labour's disastrous election defeat, Ed Miliband has faced criticism for presenting too narrow a political vision, with little to offer those who weren't languishing at the bottom of society. Actually, his policy programme wasn't even ambitious enough for those at the bottom, let alone anybody else. A minimum wage of £8 an hour by 2020 was derisory, now eclipsed by the Tories (even though their attack on in-work benefits leaves the working poor poorer). His promise to build just 200,000 homes a year by 2020 was inadequate – we'd need 240,000 being built now just to meet need.1 And so on. But it's true that the left wins by building a coalition of both low-income and middle-income Britons. It does that by offering a coherent, inspiring alternative that can improve their lives, their families, their communities, their country and their world – all of which are interconnected. This is aspiration.

So what would a vision to meet the aspirations of working people look like?

Some Britons wish to rent, and their needs must be catered for. For the 11 million2 now in the expanding and badly regulated private rented sector, rents need to be controlled and tenancies given security. Councils need to be given the sweeping power to build homes so that renters have the option of a social tenancy: this would also reduce the 2 million strong social housing waiting list,3 create skilled jobs, and stimulate the economy. It would, in the long term, mean less money spent on housing benefit, money better spent on schools, hospitals or reducing the deficit. For millions who do not have accommodation, particularly the young people living with their parents in record numbers,4 a place to live is a simple but crucial aspiration.

But the left can also promote home ownership, too, without flogging off social housing. Why not abolish stamp duty, and replace both it and council tax with land value tax? Such a tax could also ensure that more affluent Britons pay a higher proportion, relieving the burden on middle-income Brits, but also helping to prevent damaging housing bubbles. Publicly owned banks could also offer mortgages to those currently denied them, not least the self-employed. Jeremy Corbyn recently suggested right-to-buy for private tenants: we could certainly start by looking at right to first refusal, for example, for tenants whose landlords are selling up. While millions of Britons aspire to own a home, the National Housing Federation warns that homeownership is becoming an “exclusive members club.”5 These are policies which ensure the housing crisis is dealt with progressively and aspirations for a secure and stable home are not the exclusive entitlement of the privileged.

What about the aspiration to improve one’s quality of life through well-paid secure work? The left has so much to say to self-employed and entrepreneurs, for example. They are all too often denied loans their businesses desperately need because of the failure of private banks to lend properly. A public investment bank with a specific mandate to support such businesses must surely be built. Self-employed people often value the sense of being their own boss, but are often workers with little security, falling wages and deprived of pensions and paid sick and maternity leave: these are people the left must fight for. And what is often missed in the debate over the attack on tax credits is it will be many self-employed people worst affected by the cuts. These are people the left must fight for. We should be clear about the fact that precarious workers too deserve the ability to look into the future positively; that life’s pleasures should not simply be the preserve of the rich, but available to everybody. Policies such as these should emphasise that the left is not opposed to luxury, but believes that the chance to live a full and secure life should be extended to all.

The left has been lose the battle over inheritance tax for a long time, and it is emotively portrayed as a ‘death tax’. Let's learn from the Greens, then, who are advocating abolishing inheritance tax. Instead, the recipient is taxed according to their wealth, not the estate of the person who has died.

Education is not only vital for improving the life chances of individuals, but also for furthering social ideals like democracy and community building. University graduates from middle-income families are finding themselves saddled with debt for aspiring to a better education: there's an attack on aspiration if ever there was one. Their living standards will be reduced for years as a consequence. George Osborne justifies his austerity programme on the grounds that future generations must not be saddled with debt, and yet is happy to do so when it comes to education. That's why the campaign for university as a social good is so important. But then many students leave universities struggling to get secure well-paid jobs. That's why we need an industrial strategy – like Germany – abandoning the dogma of “let the markets pick winners and losers”, and create thriving hi-tech and renewable energy sectors backed up by expanding research and development sectors. Many middle-income young people also find themselves locked out of the professions because they are expected to work for free to get their foot in the door, unable to do so unless they have well-off parents to support them. And so that attack on aspiration – unpaid internships – must finally be abolished.

When we argue for public ownership of rail, we are making the point that we spend far more public subsidies now than we did in the days of British Rail. This is a waste of public money, better spent on the railways themselves and reducing ticket prices. It can be cheaper to catch a flight half way across the world than to travel by train in your own country. And who does this often affect the worst? Middle-class commuters, penalised with rip-off ticket prices because they have settled in the suburbs.

That major companies don't pay taxes is unfair for many reasons: one is that small businesses cannot afford to hire accountants to exploit tax loopholes, and are placed at a competitive disadvantage. That's why the fight against tax avoidance is one to help the small business. And taxing the booming rich – and often the idle rich – is crucial to invest in services, jobs and housing for middle-income and low-income Britons alike.

Jobs, housing, education, small businesses: the British left can champion all. We understand that the ambition and aspiration of the individual is intimately linked to improving society as a whole. Collective solutions allow the individual to prosper and flourish. The right will continue to use aspiration and ambition as cover for shovelling more wealth and power to those who have too much of both at the top. What's to stop the rest of us appropriating the terms to support building a more just, equal and prosperous society?

You can download the full "What is aspiration?" series here.