This shoddy reshuffle is just a distraction, understanding aspiration is the key to the next election

by Rob Marchant

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 observed on 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.

Labour have exposed Tory mistakes and responded robustly to the reshuffle, but are equally not engaging with the forgotten strivers.

It’s a shame. Phillip Gould dedicated his life to re-connecting Labour with the aspirational classes. They are waiting, The party needs to remember the lessons he taught if it is to look forward to a victory at the next election, rather than a result that is currently anyone’s guess.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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7 Responses to “This shoddy reshuffle is just a distraction, understanding aspiration is the key to the next election”

  1. Nick says:

    Aspiration doesn’t solve anything.

    What is needed is a full understanding of just how much debt the government is in.

    For example, Labour’s raising of the retirement age by 2 years and the state pension in general. What effect has that had on someone on 26K a year? Median wage

    If they had put their NI in the FTSE, they would have had 19K a year, joint life, RPI linked at 65.

    The state pension used to give them 5K, not fully joint life, RPI linked at 65.

    The increase of 2 years means they have lost 19K plus another 2 years of contributions at 4.5K. 47K lost there.

    The CPI link to RPI is a 25% cut in value. A state pension cost 140K to provide. That is 35K lost.

    So just the two year increase and change to CPI means 83,000 pounds stolen by people like you from people on 26K a year.

    I can hear it now. If that was someone like Maxwell or a bank you would be screaming blue murder.

    When you do it, you keep quite.

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    Who would be David Cameron right now, ah well lets see Ed Miliband.

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @Nick: “people like me”, eh? You have made some pretty big assumptions about who I am and what I earn, I suspect, without foundation. I am also not quite sure what your pensions argument has to do with aspiration.

  4. Henrik says:

    Rob, in recent posts here you’ve been circling the elephant in the room in a markedly interesting way (I can mix a metaphor as well as the next man). That elephant is, of course, the massive indifference to party politics which ordinary folk feel – partly compounded, as you say, by an instinctive lack of sympathy for professional politicians who are not held in particularly high esteem and partly, I suspect, by a feeling that political parties increasingly are in dialogue with themselves and have no big issues or inspiring visions to share.

    One might point to the victory of the soundbite over rhetoric, here, as well, but to do so would expose all hands to the suggestion that, just possibly, British education and its failings in the last 25 years or so have led most folk under 40 to find following an argument quite taxing.

    The issue is not “how to connect with the electorate”, it’s “how the hell do we interest people in politics at all”? At the moment, much as happened with the decline of organised and intellectually rigorous religious practice among the mass population – an upsurge in imbecilic cultism – the shallow and facile nonsense of the likes of the BNP and Respect gets a hearing for at least having some fire in the speakers’ bellies and is gaining advantage over great parties like Labour and the Conservatives, who seem to have lost their bottle and their relish for arguments of substance and principle. Bring back the drama, the entertainment, the real passion, the anger and the structured argument.

  5. Rallan says:

    “first UK party to choose as leader a decent, self-made, down-to-earth, pro-striver leader will get massive momentum”

    Such a person would immediately have to sweep away all the professional politicians at the top of their party, or be proved a fraud. Which is why it hasn’t happened and will be resisted tooth and claw by the political elite.

    Consider the Labour party. Could such a person tolerate a party headed by an unqualified bitchy little gang who have never worked in the real world (an have a track record of abject professional failure) made up of the Miliband Brothers, the Eagle sisters and the Balls/Cooper husband/wife team? Could they tolerate being used as a bought puppet by the extreme left wing led Unions?

    Literally, our political elite depend on NOT selecting a decent, self-made, down-to-earth, pro-striver leader. And for as long as they can hold onto their Lib/Lab/Con strangle-hold monopoly, they never will.

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @Henrik: I can’t find it in me to disagree with much of what you say, although perhaps I – heaven help me – hold elected politicians in slightly higher regard. Tthey are mostly decent, but need to be less dull and inward-looking. Personally I don’t think that people are any less intelligent or educated than they used to be, but they are certainly disengaged.

    What they do need is a sea-change in type of politician – I firmly believe professionalisation has on the whole been a terribly negative change in all parties, despite there being many good ones who have thrived despite this rather than because of it. My point is that at least in the US you can get people who’ve done something outside politics getting a look-in. The bad news of course is that it is almost invariably someone super-rich who buys their way in, owing to the large amounts of money sloshing around in US politics. It’s six one, half a dozen the other between UK and US, in the end. We, however, have a chance to get out of our particular rut.

    @Rallan: while I don’t agree with yoru comments about Labour pols, and they are certainly not led by extreme-left unions (none are even affiliated to the party), your point about political elites being self-perpetuating is fair. I suspect that eventually someone unexpected will come through and break the mould.

  7. Rallan says:

    “I suspect that eventually someone unexpected will come through and break the mould.”

    I honestly doubt that someone will be from one of the main bloated, corrupted parties. Love him or loathe him, the politician who best matches the description today is Nigel Farage.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on my other points. Honestly, I’m not sure how you can really dispute the basics and I doubt your rebuttal was made with total conviction. I hope not, anyway, because at some point Labour will need an internal revolution of the Decent to tear down the Professionals.

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