by Glenn Edwards
It’s less than a year till the general election and there’s been a lot of talk about Labour alienating itself from business interests and lurching too far to the left. But even if Labour hasn’t been effective in courting corporate leaders this doesn’t mean that it is anti-ambition. Current policies actually seem to have a lot in common with Tony Blair’s once cherished idea of combining social justice with ambition, even if they differ from the ‘third way’ in practice. We just need to start thinking about ambition in a much broader light and therein could lie a key part of the Party’s message over the next year.
Labour is pursuing a political approach that views everyone as potential success stories and not just winners or losers, as people pursuing their own human development and not just static stereotypes and as having a stake in this economy rather than just being compensated for their loss. We need a country that doesn’t wield clout in the world simply through a privileged elite in London but on the backs of a vast army of clever and confident people. Labour’s aim to redirect the economy towards high-skill jobs and create a world-class workforce is a policy example par excellence.
There is a feeling that many politicians, particularly on the right, are pandering to the short term interests of a wealthy few at the expense of the long term prosperity of the nation. In no clearer way is this expressed than the political divide over the treatment of the banks. Labour’s policy of taxing banker’s bonuses in order to create jobs for the long term unemployed isn’t a tax on ambition, it’s a tax on greed. It’s a sensible way of bringing back confidence and self esteem to those who lost it so long ago whilst simultaneously helping expand business.
Whilst the Conservatives like to think of themselves as the party of business, it seems that this often only extends as far as big business. Poor access to finance continues to burden many small businesses and Labour are prepared to use the reigns of government to introduce a regional banking system to improve this. Such a policy has enormous potential of fostering green shoots of future growth and strengthening the culture of entrepreneurship outside of London. The Conservatives can only sit back and hope that new banking competitors will help make this sector more dynamic but they are hampered by their ideological commitment to small-state solutions.
Labour could even take a step further and pledge to create a national investment bank funded by a one-off tax on the most wealthy, as suggested by Robert Skidelsky. It may or may not be remembered that the idea of a wealth tax has already been floated past the government by Nick Clegg only as late as 2012. The result was for the policy to be quickly slapped down by senior Tories as promoting the “politics of envy” and for George Osborne to warn that it could drive potential wealth creators away. This however is far from clear and one wonders whether this is simply politically untenable for a party that courts the most wealthy.
Perhaps the single greatest drain on ambition is inequality. Low-skill, low-wage and insecure jobs do not create ripe conditions for people to feel confident and in command of their lives. So many children are born into environments in which there is a real perception that there is only so much they can achieve, a by-product of increasing inequality of outcomes. The cost-of-living crisis has pushed many into debt and forced people to start spending their savings, which doesn’t put them in a favourable position to do something like starting a business. Again it is only the Labour Party that has real answers to this as demonstrated by recent plans to ensure that the minimum wage rises faster than average earnings.
The Conservatives so often only seem capable of supporting ambition as it occurs at the highest echelons of society. They are reluctant to take the tool-kit to the economy both for ideological reasons and for fear of alienating their high-profile business support. However in doing so they are prevailing over an economic settlement in which the odds are stacked against many people being able to make something great of themselves. It’s important not just to reckon with a situation as it stands but to envisage what is possible in the long run economy. Ambition isn’t just about owning a big business but starting a business in the first place, bettering yourself through work, finding confidence and fighting your way out of poverty.
Glenn Edwards is a politics graduate and a Labour activist