The most over-used and least defined word of the moment is ‘aspiration’. Some Labour leadership candidates use it in almost every sentence. Not understanding it cost Labour the election says Alan Johnson and many others, including Alan Milburn, who must by now have met every one of his monetary aspirations several times over.
Of course, the Tories use it a lot, it is part of their lexicon. They use the word in inverse proportion to the ability of people to achieve their desire for a better life. The flatter the wages, the more they claim to support aspiration in work. The faster home ownership falls, the more they use it to describe their housing policies. The new Communities Minister, Greg Clark, said yesterday that their new right to buy for housing association tenants (RTB2) was driven by the Government’s desire to meet the ‘aspiration’ of 86% of the population to own their home – before admitting that there is a huge gap between their preference and the reality of housing affordability.
I come from an ‘aspirational’ working class background, brought up on a Newcastle council estate. My parents wanted their children to succeed and do better than they had. For my Dad, that would have meant a real apprenticeship and a trade. For my Mum, it meant staying on at school and trying for College. She got her way, at the considerable cost of me not bringing in a wage, and I got into University. My fees were paid by the council, and I got a grant, enough to live on. It led to a decent career, good pay, and home ownership. So I think I understand aspiration and social mobility, how it works, and the kind of Government policies needed to make it happen. But for my parents the top priority in their list of aspirations was the advancement of their children. Becoming home owners was a secondary consideration.
By the time I was in my 50s I was a board member at Notting Hill Housing Trust and the word ‘aspiration’ was used almost as often as the dreaded phrase the ‘housing ladder’. Whenever I heard either of these, it would be followed by a proposal to reduce the amount of social rented housing in the development programme and to increase the amount of shared ownership. Shared ownership was evidently ‘aspirational’ and social rent was for people who were part of the ‘dependency culture’ (or ‘chavs’ as they were called once). It seemed to me to be a perversion of the idea of aspiration to link it to one of many possible ambitions and a single tenure. People’s aspirations are their own affair, not restricted to the definition imposed by Iain Duncan Smith or housing association bosses. It is a complex concept and it should not be reduced to the simplistic idea that people only want to be richer or own a specific asset.
If you are one of the millions who are homeless or overcrowded or living with parents or living in a hugely expensive but crap private flat, you may well aspire to a decent, genuinely affordable, secure social rented home where you can begin to build a better life for yourself and your family. The first rung on the housing ladder is somewhere you can genuinely call home, a place you can afford where you cannot be turfed out on someone else’s whim. You might see it as your home for ever, the foundation for everything else you want to do, the bricks and mortar blanket that keeps your children safe and warm and allows them to settle in one school. It might lead to you getting a job or a better job or a training place or you might have a mission to improve your community and not just your personal finances.
Whenever I have worked on delivering social rented homes, I have always felt that I was also delivering on aspiration. I should make it clear, because annoyingly I always have to make it clear, that supporting a much bigger supply of social rented housing does not mean that I am against home ownership or shared ownership. It means I believe in a rounded balanced housing policy which aims to meet the needs and desires of everyone. I am against policies which assist better off people at the expense of poorer people – like subsidising home ownership whilst removing subsidy from social housing, or denying people access to council housing so homes can be sold to pay for RTB2.
In housing policy terms, when I was helping write the draft London Housing Strategy, this involved finding the right balance – ultimately a political judgement but based on huge amounts of evidence about affordability – between market and sub-market housing, and (within sub-market housing) between social rented housing which would be allocated on the basis of need and intermediate housing which was aimed at people on bigger incomes who still couldn’t afford to buy outright. Ken Livingstone instinctively understood this need for balance.
To the complete contrary, Tories, and in particular Iain Duncan Smith, think that social housing tenancies ‘stifle aspiration’. Back in the day, his Centre for Social Justice working group, chaired by the Chief Executive of Notting Hill Housing Group, started the argument for shorter social tenancies and selling off the most valuable social homes, perversely all in the name of aspiration and social mobility. Duncan Smith said that social housing was no longer the ‘tenure of choice for the aspirational working class’. In practice, his policies force more and more people into the very inferior option of private renting, at hugely greater cost to the state. I am absolutely certain that these policies meet the aspirations of no-one.
The logical extension of his thinking is to accelerate the sale of the housing association stock through RTB2. ‘Here, have £100,000 and become a Tory’ is their real slogan. They also hope to obscure the basic fact of the modern housing market: home ownership is declining and private renting is taking its place. The Tories do not want people to understand this.
If, like so many commentators, some Labour Party leadership candidates explain the election defeat as a failure to understand aspiration, it is time for them to turn the word into policy and to offer a bit of definition. I cannot for the life of me see the point made by one candidate that the Mansion Tax was anti-aspirational. The policy had its problems, especially in my bit of north-west London, but I simply can’t see that taxing the most valuable 0.5% of properties has anything to do with blocking aspiration. If that is the case, the USA, which has much heavier property taxes than us, must be the most anti-aspirational country in the world.
I suspect the reality is that ‘failing to understand aspiration’ ranks with ‘being anti-business’ and ‘spending too much’ as a totally unconvincing explanation of Labour’s defeat.