It was the most dangerous moment for a Labour leader involving a breakfast item since Ed Miliband struggled to eat a bacon sandwich. Not many people will have heard of the Labour peer Lord Watts, but his description of Jeremy Corbyn’s “hard-left political class who sit around in their £1m mansions, eating their croissants at breakfast and seeking to lay the foundations for a socialist revolution” will have struck a chord with many aspirational working- and lower-middle-class voters who haven’t supported Labour for a decade.
There is a c-word more potent than croissant, however, that this crucial section of society will have heard in relation to Corbyn last week. When David Cameron twice accused the Labour leader of being a “small-c conservative” at last Wednesday’s PMQs, it struck some inside Westminster as odd. Why was he trashing his own brand? Yet it was, however, a clever line designed to reach those same people who flinch at the Corbynista croissant-eaters – voters who want political parties to offer them hope, progress, a home of their own.
This party used to be Labour under Tony Blair. Now, right or wrong, it is the Prime Minister who casts the Conservatives as the party of work, aspiration and striving for a bigger home. Corbyn may have been right when he said that there are holes in the Government’s plan to tear down sink estates and replace them with decent homes. Cameron could not answer the opposition leader’s point that some of those on council estates to be bulldozed will be families who had bought their homes under right-to-buy. But the Prime Minister’s response was clearly well planned: it is the small-c conservative, he said, who wants working-class voters to remain “stuck in your sink estates, have nothing better than what Labour gave you after the war”.
Aspiration is not just about the middle-class family wanting to upsize into a detached home with a conservatory; it stirs the mother on a council estate into getting out of a block of flats with a broken lift and a neighbour with a violent dog. Neither Cameron nor Corbyn know what this is like, of course – but at least the Prime Minister is offering a solution. Everyone wants to feel like they are going somewhere in life. The party that can elucidate that human, primitive feeling wins elections.
It is unfair to demand a manifesto from an opposition party with four years to go until polling day. But a voter who clicks on labour.org.uk today will see press releases about the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle, the party’s freedom of information campaign and the closure of steelworks. As important as these are, where are the policies – the positive solutions, not just attacks on the Government – on housing, health and schools? Even though there are more than four years to go, Cameron and George Osborne are already framing the debate of general election 2020: progressive Conservatives versus conservative Labour. A significant section of the working and lower middle class has already left Labour. If Corbyn wants to stop his party losing the rest, he needs to come up with a progressive, aspirational and positive alternative to this government.
Bronze Age betterment
This sense of betterment – of home improvement, literally – is hinted at in the incredible archaeological discovery of a Bronze Age house near Peterborough. The circular home near a river was destroyed within minutes by a fire and its remains have been preserved in silt ever since. What is fascinating is the contents of this family’s kitchen, trapped in time. One of the archaeologists on the dig described finding 27 pots of different sizes, as if, he said, someone had been down to the department store to get the full range, a sort of Bronze Age John Lewis. There were also colourful textiles and cloaks that, the archaeologist said, showed their status. It shows that, even 3,000 years ago, the aspirational drive of the human race was strong.
Let human spirit triumph
If aspiration is one essential and immutable ingredient of the human spirit, another is compassion. Rob Lawrie, a former soldier turned aid worker, has been cleared of people smuggling after he tried to rescue four-year-old Bahar Ahmadi from the Calais Jungle. Bahar’s father had asked Lawrie to take the youngster to her relatives in West Yorkshire, but the girl was discovered in the aid worker’s van at the Channel Tunnel. How can anyone argue that this child does not have a case for asylum, or that the best place for her is not with her family in the safety of a home outside Leeds, rather than the squalid conditions at Calais? She is only one child among tens of thousands who need our help, but the British government should show that our country cares by taking her in.
A bridge too far
At Christmas, I was in North Yorkshire with my family. On Boxing Day, the floods that engulfed York and surrounding villages came close to where we were – the cottage where we were staying was on a hill but, for a few hours, we were cut off when the nearest village was deluged. After the water subsided and the roads cleared, we went to the pub for our usual pint of Sam Smith’s, the smooth ale native to North Yorkshire. But last week it emerged that Humphrey Smith, the head of the brewery which is based in Tadcaster, was refusing to allow his land to be used for a temporary crossing after the town’s bridge was swept away when the River Wharfe swelled during the holiday. Then he imposed strict conditions on his land being used, which would have delayed the new bridge by weeks. Happily, a new temporary footbridge is being built on council land. But Smith’s behaviour has enraged local people, many of whom joined in the community effort in the wake of the floods. As Smith appears not to be joining in the all-in-it-together spirit, pub-goers are starting to boycott his beer – and I am joining them.