Reclaiming aspiration.

Author:Cruddas, Jon
Position:Features - Viewpoint essay

Recent election results demonstrate that support for the Labour Party is literally disintegrating. In Glasgow, in Crewe, in London and across the country in the local elections the verdict was damning.

This did not fall out of the sky--it has been collapsing for many years. For years, Compass had been warning about the fractures empirically occurring across the new Labour coalition. Over the last few years we have consistently flagged up how Labour lost some 4 million voters between 1997 and 2005-the biggest shifts being among public service workers and more generally among working class voters. In response all we heard was 'let's not go back to the 1980s'--as if any one of us wanted to--or the other response, that we are retreating to some 'old Labour' comfort zone. These were literally trite responses to a careful analysis of a trend of electoral decline.

Now darkening economic circumstances have forced the pace of this decline and fully exposed the hollowness of much earlier strategy. Alongside shrinking real incomes and heightened insecurity we have appeared in political free fall. The 10p tax rate crystallised a sense of Labour having vacated its role as the political vehicle for articulating the concerns of working people.

A year ago, change was promised but then little delivered as the election that never was triggered a rewind to the old political playbook of triangulation and tacking to the right.

Increasingly we are outflanked by a modern Conservatism that has discovered a more emotionally literate language--it talks about values and relationships; it empathises with people who are struggling; it appears to be going with the grain of people's vulnerabilities. Oliver Letwin recently criticised Labour for concentrating too much on the market and presiding over a Britain that has become too unequal (Letwin, 2008). Taking things a step further, Tory blogger Tim Montgomerie went on to proclaim: 'This is the Conservative opportunity--an opportunity to become the party of the heart and to win a war on poverty that has defeated Labour' (Montgomerie, 2008). Sure, this Conservatism is policy light and politically brittle--witness David Davis--but simply hitting out at a few posh kids or salesmen as a response undermines our capacity to really take this project on.

Meanwhile, some on our own side are adding to this topsy-turvy atmosphere by pitching for cuts in public spending and tax. We are in danger of trading off the very essence of social democracy. Within classical revolutionary politics there was always a tradition called 'liquidationism'. When stagnant periods are experienced, some openly pitch for the liquidation of the Party itself. Both on the far right and left of the Party, this tendency appears to be alive and well.

Making sense of it all

Let's go back to the basic architecture of much government thinking in the Party. There is a formula at the heart of the government based around a fundamental rupture between marginal seats and Labour's heartland. It parallels assumptions regarding the psychology of the swing voter as compared to 'traditional' voters. It cynically counter-poses aspiration and our heartlands. As much as the so-called heartlands wanted social democratic, collectivist remedies, this could not be delivered as the marginal swing voter would not tolerate such thinking. They, we are told, are 'aspirational'--they want to get on. They would only vote Labour on the basis that social democracy was reduced to acts of stealth; aspirational thinking was meant to be, by definition, individualist, Thatcherite, pro-private and anti-public.

If this was ever true, it is yesterday's thinking.

Firstly, the last ten years has demonstrated that economic success has also been mirrored by downsides that...

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