Jack Dacombe is based in London and writes the Conservative blog MediaTory.
As the Westminster air fills with the stale musk of political peacocking, the buzzword ‘aspiration’ steadily becomes evermore ubiquitous. It is seemingly inescapable, burrowing its way into straight-to-air soundbites on both sides of the aisle, and the cause of endless pantomime jockeying between the Tories and Labour: “We’re the party of aspiration” – “No, we are.” The problem is, besides making for snappy copy, it carries little weight with the electorate.
Much like the derided business-speak term ‘synergy,’ the idea of ‘aspiration’ in political lingo is a vapid truism, devoid of any semblance of depth or real meaning. I’m not saying that it is a dirty word – clearly by its definition it is anything but – merely that as a basis for political policy it is thoroughly anaemic. Of course everyone has aspirations: the problem is that they are markedly different for each person. The danger of an electorate-lumping phrase like ‘aspiration’ is that, by generalising the term to suit the broadest swathe of voters, you risk a missed connection with the vast majority of them. Under its current use by politicians, you can take ‘aspiration’ to refer to the supposed innate desire for socio-economic improvement; the ladder-climbing dream that is assumed to lie dormant within every one of us.
That image of John Q. Public is almost arrogant in its naivety. Certainly there are more than a handful of voters for whom aspirational fulfilment equates to reaching the upper echelons of society or the highest tax band, and yes, it’s a natural urge to better one’s lot in life, but it is plainly foolish to assume that this expansive, limp descriptor applies to one and all. There are plenty of people who are more than happy with their situations – whether they’re thriving middle class families or singletons on the dole. To assume that aspiration (by the above definition) is the burning fire that drives the electorate is to imply that those who are content with their lives are abnormal for being so. Aspiration means different things to almost everyone, and to use it as a catch-all attention grabber is as lazy as it is lustreless.
Of course there is another, less pleasant, side to aspiration: the cult of envy, so prevalent on these shores. As the constant anti-Tory rhetoric emanating from the Left makes abundantly explicit, it’s fantastic to aspire, but to achieve is unacceptable. When ‘rich’ and ‘posh’ are pejorative terms in the national vernacular, then something is clearly amiss. For example, take the prevalence of Eton-educated politicians. Not a day will pass without some disaffected voter lamenting their numbers. The same goes for those educated at Oxbridge.
It all seems rather ridiculous – why on earth wouldn’t you want those leading the country to have had the best education possible? Look, there are plenty of talented, intelligent politicians who weren’t afforded that sort of upbringing, and it’s certainly not a prerequisite for success in Westminster, but there is absolutely no viable reason for denigrating those who were. If Cameron, Johnson, Goldsmith et al were products of an inner city comprehensive, the papers would be rife with opinion pieces analysing what made that school so adept at churning out leaders, and lauding it for doing so. As it is, those same column inches are filled with anti-Etonian diatribes. What they are telling Britain is: it’s okay to want to improve your life, but there’s a cut-off point where we will begin to despise you for your success, and for your desire to give your children the best possible start in life through schooling and inheritance.
Linguistics aside, the Conservatives have to examine the message they are sending by continuing with the ‘Party of Aspiration’ line. Aspirations, to many people, represent currently intangible dreams. The Conservatives, with five years of governing under their belts, must now put that line out to pasture and emphasise that those ambitions are no longer mere dreams floating in the ether, but realistic opportunities waiting to be seized. The Tories no longer need to leverage the public’s personal aspirations into points on a satisfaction poll. Aspiration is the calling card of an opposition; the planting of the seed that things might just be greener on the other side. With the economic recovery in full swing, the government can now focus on today’s reality rather than tomorrow’s possibility.
‘Achievement’ should be the rallying cry, not just in bucolic Conservative backwaters, but in the grey city estates and ghostly industrial heartlands. The government needs to underscore that life, no matter your socio-economic standing, is better now than five years ago. They need to shout from the ramparts and reel off the improvements they’ve made in the lives of Britons. With Labour in total disarray – both in ideology and leadership – and the SNP behaving like Parliament’s class clowns, it is the perfect time for the Conservatives to retire the idea of appealing to voters’ aspirations, and to emphasise that their government is working. The deficit is down and employment is up; inequality is at an all time low and hard work now truly pays off. The message should be a simple one: you no longer have to aspire – you can achieve. They need to assure the public that whatever their ambition may be, they now have the freedom, the economy, and the gubernatorial support to make it a reality. Only then will the Conservatives be able to cast aside the tired moniker of the ‘Party of Aspiration’, and take up the mantle of the ‘Party of Achievement’.