Aspiration isn’t just for Tories

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The conventional wisdom is that Keir Starmer is a second-rate politician, who will win the British general election only because the Conservatives are clapped out. Starmer’s weaknesses are obvious: he’s an uncharismatic control freak who keeps ditching pledges. But he has unremarked strengths. Any good leader is their message, and Starmer embodies two ideals that are traditionally owned by the right. The first is patriotism, recast in a centre-left guise. The second is aspiration, the natural human desire to better oneself.

Starmer’s predecessor as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was never going to become prime minister, in part because he wouldn’t do patriotism. Famously, he didn’t sing the national anthem at a memorial service for the Battle of Britain. If you want to lead a country, you have to show that you love it. Under Starmer, Labour’s campaign materials are plastered in Union Jacks, and the opening words of the party’s campaign video are, “It’s time for change. Britain is a great and proud country.”                

But Labour can’t just mimic rightwing nationalism. It must express an inclusive patriotism, one that embraces all Britons, from the dead of the world wars to young people of African origin. Inclusive patriotism is best articulated by England’s football manager, Gareth Southgate, but Labour is getting there. The first people shown in the campaign video are three young black musicians. Next comes a shot of two ambulance workers. They stand for the other strand of patriotism: the celebration of public service. Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, can plausibly praise teachers, garbage collectors and social workers as people doing patriotic work.

By contrast, Conservatives tend to treat public servants as leeches on the taxpayer. Tory austerity measures have left real average pay in the public sector lower today than when the party took power in 2010. Many teachers and NHS staff use food banks. Conservative politicians have also repeatedly denigrated civil servants. Liz Truss (Labour’s treasured campaign asset) blames “trans activists” inside the civil service (aka the “deep state”) for wrecking her premiership. Now the Conservatives are trying to reclaim public service in a roundabout way, by proposing compulsory national service for 18-year-olds.

Then there’s aspiration. The desire to better oneself can take two forms: rising with one’s entire class, or rising alone. Leftwing parties are historically more comfortable with the former notion. They came into existence to uplift the working class. Labour also wants to represent people who aren’t personally aspirational: it’s fine to want to be a life-long carer or bus driver, and those workers deserve decent lives too. But the Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher have usually been better at expressing individual aspiration, the dream of rising with one’s family, by making good money, buying a house, sending the kids to private school, et cetera. 

In Britain, aspiration often appears stronger among immigrants than among the native working classes, who receive daily messages from the class system to limit their ambitions. This may explain why immigrants’ children outperform the native-born in education more in the UK than in any other developed country.  

The Conservative Suella Braverman knocked Labour’s plan to slap VAT on private schools as a “tax on aspiration”. Tories say the measure will keep poorer kids out of private school, even though private-school pupils overwhelmingly come from the top decile of family incomes, peaking in the top 1 per cent.

Labour needs to argue that fee-paying schools thwart the aspirations of the 93 per cent of kids who don’t attend them. Parents often say it’s “natural” to buy their children an advantage through private education. But in a country with a stagnant economy, where the pool of good jobs hasn’t grown, buying an advantage for one child equals disadvantage for another.  

Labour should present itself as wanting to spread aspiration, not block it. All British children ought to think like Etonians, who put no ceiling on their ambitions and assume that of course they can be prime minister one day. Starmer embodies the ordinary person’s aspiration. “My dad was a toolmaker,” he repeats ad tedium, and for all the arguments about his family’s precise class status, he would certainly be Britain’s lowest-born prime minister since John Major.  

A Labour party that has mastered patriotism and aspiration might sound too rightwing for some. But that’s to misunderstand the electorate. Voters tend to be conservative about patriotism and aspiration, and more radical about, say, achieving “net zero” carbon emissions. A winning politician understands that jumble.

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