Aspiration, Labour's failure and the long road to understanding

By Jill Segger
May 12, 2015

Shock does not produce reasoned reaction. No one was expecting a majority Conservative government and, despite the fact that Labour increased its share of the vote by 1.5 per cent over the Tories' 0.8 per cent, the parliamentary arithmetic meant that Friday's news was defined as a Labour wipe-out.

After the death, the autopsy. Or at least, what we have every right to expect would be a deep and wide investigation which would begin in open-minded humility. But within 24 hours, all the signals were that both prominent and has-been Labour figures were lining up to make 'aspiration' the go-to word without really inviting a discussion of what it is we are to aspire to.

For many of us born into working class families during the two decades which followed the last war, that aspiration was perceived as availing ourselves of the education which had not been possible for our parents. That some material advancement was likely to result from this was taken as read, but was not the dominating factor. As I left home to begin my undergraduate life, my father spoke words which were heard in some form on railway platforms all over the country – “you've got your foot on the ladder. Make sure you never pull it up after yourself.”

Maybe we were the tail end of a society for whom being members of each other was still a reality. We graduated with small overdrafts, jobs were plentiful and modest houses affordable. That 'social contract' ceased to exist some time ago and it is among its ruins that we now consider what aspiration might mean.

There can be few people who do not seek in some way to 'better themselves'. For that reason, the big tent approach in which poor and more prosperous alike can find a home is important for political success and social cohesion. It can't be left to either 'Blairites' or Conservatives.

But as long as benefit sanctions reduce people to destitution; as long as those with poor health or no work live in fear of what may be visited upon them and as long as neo-liberal parties in both blue and red rosettes ignore or vilify their condition, it is hard to see aspiration as meaning much beyond material acquisition.

Labour has shown itself afraid of championing the just, compassionate and more equal society. In this, as in many other areas, it has permitted itself to be defined by the arguments of its opponents. A terror of being labelled 'the party of welfare' has led it into framing its arguments in terms which are scarcely distinguishable from those of the Conservatives and which have left so many of the most vulnerable feeling that it has no concern for them. To hear Peter Mandelson urging the need for “new New Labour” can only confirm this sense of having been abandoned. New Labour, Old Labour, Blairite, Brownite – these are are all terms and concepts which indicate what a long road of understanding the Labour party has to travel if it is to escape outmoded thinking, political futility and an endless feedback loop.

Jon Cruddas, Labour's policy co-ordinator, is to launch an independent review into why his party lost the election. It has been reported that the Labour group on the Local Government Association and the centre-left think-tank Compass are among organisations that will be involved in the inquiry. There is some reason to hope that the combination of on-the-ground experience and proven independent thinking may be able to move beyond the closed system which has not yet realised that the old categories will no longer serve. Maybe the losing candidates will be made part of this review – their experience may not be palatable to those lining up in praise of back to the future, but it will offer a window into painful realities.

At its best, the big tent idea of finding the common interests of bottom and middle England has real value. But just as it cannot ignore the fact that we all – rich or poor – benefit from good public services, it must not dismiss the claims of compassion and equality which recognise that it is not possible for everyone to be part of a 'hard working family'. To fail here, is not only cruel, it is as foolish as imagining that there is no need for roads or teachers.

If we aspire only to individual enrichment, we will always be victims of the least scrupulous and will ultimately encompass our own destruction. A Tweetmate who is a medic reminds me that medical terms, aspiration is “inhaling and choking on your own junk”.

More on the issues in the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia:


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.