Socialists Should Talk About Aspiration

Rebecca Long-Bailey's "aspirational socialism" is an attempt to overcome a pervasive problem: after a decade of austerity, many working people don't believe that politics can make their lives better.

Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey speaks during a Labour leadership campaign event at Oslo Hackney on January 21, 2020 in London, England. Hollie Adams / Getty

Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey is framing her campaign around three messages: Labour’s path to power, a democratic revolution, and aspirational socialism. The last of the three can sound jarring to those on the Left, who are used to hearing the word “aspiration” invoked to beat back their arguments for higher taxes on the rich, public ownership, and corporate regulation.

Yet it is hard to argue that the term does resonate with much of the electorate. Most people want a better life for themselves and their families. In an individualistic society like ours, the prevailing wisdom is that achieving this vision requires hard work, grit, and merit — but there also exists a consensus that collectively provided public goods like health care, education, and investment are critical for individual self-advancement as well as a healthy society. 

Many of the policies in Labour’s 2019 manifesto were framed around exactly this message. The manifesto was designed to help people to take back control of their lives in the context of a decade of wage stagnation, crumbling public services, and an elite-dominated politics that has left many people feeling excluded from the democratic process. Yet most voters were unconvinced. 

In some places, Labour’s message simply was not loud or coherent enough to drown out the demands to “get Brexit done.” We had a long list of policies but failed to develop a narrative as powerful as “for the many, not the few.” In others, the main problem was the messenger. Two years of onslaught from the media and his apparent indecisiveness over Brexit undoubtedly damaged Jeremy Corbyn’s image with the average voter.

But there was also a pervasive sense of disbelief about the feasibility of Labour’s policy agenda. Many voters, with good reason, have developed an instinctive mistrust for the promises of politicians. For others, the issue was much more profound. They simply did not believe that their lives could get much better without their having to sacrifice something much more significant — and the fact that Labour was presenting a list of policies while claiming 95 percent of the population would not be paying more taxes raised suspicions.

The drudgery, scarcity, and pain of everyday life has undoubtedly crushed many people’s sense of hope for the future. Most voters know that they can’t afford to take out a loan to send their child to university, so why should it be any different for the government? The ideology of austerity — that our collective resources are too limited to provide for even the basic needs of most people — has inculcated a deep sense of pessimism about the possibility of social and economic transformation.

Since the financial crisis, the power of capitalist realism has been profoundly shaken: it now seems possible to imagine that capitalism might come to an end. And yet most people do not seem to believe that we might replace it with something better.

The idea of “aspirational socialism” is Long-Bailey’s answer to this problem. It was always going to be difficult to convince an electorate beaten down by a decade of austerity that their lives could suddenly be transformed for the better simply by ticking the right box on polling day.

But reframing socialist transformation around the idea of “aspiration” aims to cut through this pessimism and make Labour’s ideas seem more achievable. In the context of declining social mobility, stagnant wages, and an impending climate catastrophe, it should not be difficult to argue that there exists a need for collective social transformation alongside individual self-advancement.

Investing in our public services will allow people up and down the country to achieve their full potential, because you can’t build a better life for yourself if you can’t access a good education, decent health care, and a safety net for when times get hard. Strengthening workers’ rights will allow people to work together to fight for better conditions, higher pay, and dignity at work. And a Green New Deal will create jobs in places starved of investment for decades so that we can build a sustainable economy fit for the future.

The one thing currently missing from Long-Bailey’s framework is a sense of oppositionality, which is essential both for populist political messaging and for promoting class consciousness. Any convincing political narrative requires a hero and a villain — if the messenger does not state these characters explicitly, the evidence shows that voters will fill them in for themselves.

We may all want a better life for ourselves and our families, but we are likely to disagree on what stands in the way of that goal — the Right often opts to construct an “other” based on ethnicity, nationality, or religion, more recently it was “Remainers”; it is up to the Left to construct an oppositionality based on class.

This is where the democratic revolution comes in. Long-Bailey can argue that live in a rigged economy in which the rules are made and enforced by a tiny elite that profits from keeping wages down, rents high, and ordinary people out of politics. The only way to challenge this model is to deliver a democratic revolution that will redistribute wealth and power away from the Westminster-based establishment and toward working people up and down the UK.

Aspirational socialism and the democratic revolution can both be realized through the creation of genuinely democratic collective institutions, which can also provide a substantive socialist response to the call of “take back control.” Abolishing the House of Lords, making the Bank of England publicly accountable, and devolving power to local councils will all help to democratize and politicize the British state. Strengthening the labor movement, transforming corporate governance, and introducing new models of corporate ownership will deliver a more democratic economy geared toward collective advance.

As Brexit negotiations begin, Trump’s intransigent demands bite, and the coming recession looms ever closer, the sheen will begin to wear off Johnson’s victory. The Labour Party will then face an existential question — should it seek to return to the politics of triangulation, which in 2010 and 2015 saw the party gain a lower share of the vote than in 2019, or rearticulate an undoubtedly popular policy agenda in more populist terms? Rebecca Long-Bailey is the only candidate in the race attempting to do the latter.