During the election campaign, I asked every senior Labour figure I came across – from Ed Miliband through Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt to candidates in marginal seats – how Labour could be the party of aspiration if its flagship policy was a mansion tax. The answer was always roughly the same, which is that hardly anyone owns a £2m house, so it was only the mega-rich in central London who would be taxed.
But the reason I didn’t like the policy was not the actual £2m threshold. I simply wondered whether someone like Miliband, who lives in a £2m property, could feel what I feel – that the prospect of a mansion tax, even if you are unlikely to ever own a home expensive enough to be affected, gets you in the guts if you grew up in a modest semi in Liverpool and dream of owning a house with a garden and roses over the door.
I am not pretending to be one of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen, but when I think about “aspiration” I don’t just see middle-class families with conservatories, the “John Lewis couple” whom Tristram Hunt rightly identifies – but also my father at the age of 11, in a two-up, two-down rented house in Kidderminster with no kitchen, reading several books a week to get himself into grammar school and eventually university, on a lifelong self-improvement mission.
I think about my mother, the oldest of nine children living in a three-bedroomed council house whose own mother, despite her monumental childcare tasks, worked two cleaning jobs, including one in the early hours so she could see her family in the evening. My grandparents were working class and strived to make their children’s lives better than their own. Both my parents went to university, which makes me categorically middle class. Today, my job makes me a member of the metropolitan elite, a phrase that has become shorthand for out of touch. Yet I refuse to be embarrassed about the label because I did not get here through nepotism or family money but my desire for self-improvement.
And whatever the reasons for Umunna withdrawing from the race, I thought the accusation that he was too “metropolitan” was a disgrace, because it suggested he was privileged and out of touch. While his background is not disadvantaged, why are we demanding that someone of mixed race should check his privilege? Are we seriously saying he, who has experienced racism and went to Manchester University, is more out of touch than Andy Burnham, a white man who went to Cambridge?
The passing slights against Umunna – that he wears hand-made shoes, expensive suits and an even more expensive watch – go to the heart of Labour’s problem and its challenge to become electable again. Wealth creation became something negative under Miliband and still is for those who want to continue his work. Home ownership was something to be taxed, not a dream to be nurtured.
By doing so, Labour has ceded the floor to the Conservatives on aspiration. As David Cameron unveiled his Cabinet last week, featuring the son of a Middlesbrough milkman, the son of a Rochdale bus driver and the daughter of Ugandan Asian immigrants, the Prime Minister declared the Tories were now the true party of working people. Anyone who criticises Sajid Javid, the Rochdale bus driver’s son, for making money in the City before standing for Parliament and getting to the Cabinet simply doesn’t understand aspiration.
Education is, of course, at the heart of the aspirational, self-improvement message from any Labour leadership contender. But home ownership should be too. When politicians talk about “housing” it sounds vague and slightly disparaging; instead they should be talking about “homes” – building more of them, and helping more people to own them. When property ownership comes easy to you, you don’t see how much it matters to those who strive to get there.
Blairite without the Blair
In talking about the modernising candidates for the Labour leadership over the past week I’ve referred to them as “Blairite”, but this term causes strong reactions in people who went off Tony Blair (mainly because of Iraq). Even some of those candidates don’t like the term because it is so loaded.
But “moderniser” and “centrist” sound a bit meaningless and, as I wrote last week, why should anyone who wants to lead Labour be ashamed of a man who won three general elections? As PM, Blair promoted ministers with working-class backgrounds like Alans Johnson and Milburn. Johnson has repeatedly refused to stand as leader, but it strikes me that anyone with his universal appeal – non-priviliged upbringing, centrist, modernising, Blairite approach – would solve Labour’s electoral problems. “Blair” is not a four-letter word, after all. Would it work if we referred to blairite with a small b, as one MP suggested to me?
Labour’s Gove problem
Dan Jarvis is the man many Labour MPs desperately wanted to see run for leader, but he ruled himself out last weekend because of his family. It was a pity that in Harriet Harman’s low-key Shadow Cabinet reshuffle Jarvis wasn’t promoted to shadow secretary of state – particularly given that Michael Gove had just got the job of Justice Secretary.
Lord Falconer is Gove’s new shadow, leaving the way clear for an MP to take him on in the Commons, but I hear ex-Para Jarvis won’t even be doing that. It will be down to Andy Slaughter, not the most dazzling Commons performer, to take on Gove over the planned scrapping of the Human Rights Act. Will the Labour MP be slaughtered?
New skill takes a bow
On the subject of self-improvement, I have started a night school class in floristry. My first lesson involved making a hand-tied bouquet, which was going really well until I went to tie a ribbon at the end.
When I was six, my best friend told me how to tie a bow the “boy’s way”, which is making two loops and tying them in a knot – rather than the more elegant, correct version of making one loop and imagining a rabbit running round a tree trunk and down a hole.
On Thursday, my floristry teacher spotted my cheat’s version of a bow, which made the ribbon look messy. “What are you doing?” he exclaimed. It was then, at the age of 41 and a half, that I learnt to tie a bow properly for the first time in my life.Reuse content