The Tory manifesto was artfully targeted at making everyone a weeny bit richer, and some a lot richer. It offered to raise the income tax threshold to £12,500 (though the rich get more from that than the poor), to lower tax on those on the minimum wage, to raise the higher rate income tax threshold to nearly £50,000 (benefiting largely the top 10%), and raising the threshold for the inheritance tax from £650,000 to £1 million (benefiting only the richest 6% of families). The Tories showered these goodies around like confetti, freely admitting that these handouts plus the £8bn for the NHS and £6bn for housing association right-to-buy discounts amounted to over £20bn, wholly unfunded, but Labour kept doggedly to austerity and no unfunded handouts in order to prove its fiscal reliability. So who won? It’s a no-brainer.
Aspiration is unquestionably important, but for the Tories it’s a code for something else – the system’s fine, you’ve just got to try harder to pull yourself up and get ahead. For the Blairite Right now seeking to regain the Labour leadership, it means as Lord Mandelson so deftly put it: ‘New Labour is intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich’. For the Left it means recognising that everyone must be given a real chance to get on, but if that is to be taken seriously, it requires fundamental changes to the structure of opportunity in our society.
It means changing the system by which rewards are currently distributed. No longer should the super-rich determine their own pay and benefits via their own self-chosen executive pay remuneration committees; it should be determined by whole company pay bargaining. Nor should working employees be left bereft of any hope of aspiration by zero hours contracts, a weak labour market (nearly 2 million still unemployed) that leaves the employer with the whip hand to push down wages, and trade unions hobbled by anti-union legislation from doing their proper job of representing and defending their members. Nor, pace the Tories and the Labour Blairite Right, can aspiration remotely stand a chance while they continue to insist on an economy run on de-regulated finance, market fundamentalism, privatisations, and trade unions kept on a tight leash.
The whole foundations of our current society are so structured to fatten the rich and impoverish the vulnerable that any talk of aspiration for all is sheer hypocrisy. The rich are cosseted with strings of tax reliefs, an inordinately unjust pay reward sytem, a blind eye being cast over their tax avoidance machinations, and the resources to send their children to expensive private schools which will carry on class inequalities into future generations. The squeezed middle, the working poor (6.5 million in their households today) and the jobless are afflicted by pay freezes and pay cuts, energy bill hikes, accelerated private rent increases, a swelling housing benefit budget that subsidises rich landlords but not the tenants, waiting lists for a home swollen by the bedroom tax and only half the houses needed being built, nearly a million of the jobless sanctioned last year and deprived of all their unemployment benefit for 4 or 13 weeks for trivial infringements, the seriously disabled suffering big benefit cuts for not getting jobs they manifestly can’t do, to name but some.
To talk about aspiration for all while ignoring the grotesque injustices which make it utterly unrealisable is the purest sanctimony.