The British Aspiration: to shop at John Lewis

“Aspiration is not the preserve of those who shop at John Lewis. Aspiration is universal; it is felt by Asda and Aldi shoppers too.”

This is not a farcical statement, though I wish it were. Andy Burnham, the apparent favourite in the competition for Labour Party leadership, recently said this when visiting Ernst & Young in London. ‘Aspiration’ has become fashionable, most particularly in the political rhetoric of the Labour Party. Yet, the true significance of this concept in relation to the British public at large remains elusive, which is perhaps why Burnham was moved to so ineffectively define it.

Of course, the general sentiment of Burnham’s statement is not inaccurate. The ability ‘to aspire’ is indeed a “universal” one which is arguably intrinsic to human nature. The fact that this needed to be said, though, is rather disquieting. The framing of aspiration within a construction of supermarket hierarchies is even more disturbing, and much more telling. Implicitly or not, Burnham is defining aspiration according to consumption, and this is precisely why I find this remark so poisonous.

Though it might appear that focusing on one political sound bite is petty and unrepresentative, I have done so precisely because I think it is a useful way to approach the wider trope of aspiration in Labour’s post-election politics. Furthermore, analysing political quotations may seem like an excuse to merely argue semantics. However, the current prevalence of aspiration as a tool of rhetoric with social class connotations, deliberately implied for political gain, entails that the interpretations of this word are particularly powerful and should be explored.

The first point to be made is that Labour Party aspirational politics are very much reactionary in nature. After their defeat in the May general election, Tony Blair wrote a piece for the Guardian entitled “Labour must be the party of ambition as well as compassion.” Whether this was intended or not, what the article makes clear is that appealing to peoples’ aspirations is essentially a means to an end, and that end is political power. Indeed, Blair declares “the route to the summit lies through the centre ground.” Basically, one can assume this metaphorical place is populated by the moderate middle class, an aspirational group of people that Blair wants to shake hands with en-masse. Isn’t it laudable that the Labour Party wants to re-acquaint itself with the average British person, especially after failing in the last general election? Well, it would be, except no such person actually exists. This isn’t even so much as a bad case of preaching to the choir, it’s even worse- apparently Labour wants to preach to an empty room of stereotypes. Blair even said it himself; the “centre ground is as much a state of mind as a set of policies.”

The idea of a “centre ground” moderate Britain is so nebulous, and yet so apparently inoffensive, that anchoring it to the concept of aspiration makes it appear less divisive. This leads us back to the underlining paradox of Burnham’s statement about aspiration being represented equally among people, whilst simultaneously defining them by how they consume. When he launched his bid to be the next Labour leader, Burnham defined aspiration as “giving every single person the dream of a better life, about helping all of our businesses, small and large, to get on and grow.” Aspiration is tied down to notions of business growth, of brand success, of corporate capital. Aspiration is apparently for everyone, yet at the same time is marked by inequality, defined according to profit margins.

In our modern, capitalist world, perhaps this is the reality that we should accept?

Well, call me a crazy communist, a misguided graduate or a political hipster, but I just don’t.

Shadow shopping

For me, an aspirational Labour party would be one that actually found a way to practise what it preached and prioritise both compassion and ambition, without implying the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.  An aspirational Labour Party would be one that could envisage successful people as not just profiting from business, from their own personal growth and that of others around them. Better yet, is it not impossible that business and welfare could actually contribute to each other in a more meaningful way than a PR stunt? We could aspire for innovation, which is something Blair touches on in his piece:

“The world is an extraordinary market place of new thinking right now.”

It is true, the world is full of possibilities, but not all opportunity comes with a price tag, nor should it. To label the innovative potential of our planet a “market place” renders what should be priceless as just another good to be bought and sold. Blair is right to call on the Labour Party to be more forward-thinking and to seek inspiration from further away than their nicely polished front doors, but by employing a consumer metaphor he reveals how truly stifled his thinking is.

Some people may believe aspiration is just about money, and this appears to be the target audience of Labour with their new favourite buzzword. Whilst buying into a consumer-driven world may push the buttons of some, it only further stigmatises those who cannot afford tore-affirm themselves with their own purchasing power. A consumer, business-driven notion of aspiration might give a pat on the back to “wealth creators,” but at what cost to those who can’t afford to pin their hopes on their next bank statement?

The message is clear: the Labour Party values people who earn enough to aspire to consume. If you can’t consume much, then you better work harder-Andy Burnham doesn’t like people who are “handed everything on a plate.” If you want that to be a nice plate from John Lewis, work harder, buy into The British Dream of blood, sweat and department stores, and you might just be happy one day.

Even the greediest person doesn’t just aspire to be rich. It might be a cliché, but money certainly isn’t enough to buy the happiness of anyone, so shallow sentiments about aspiration definitely won’t. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to buy nice things, but surely our identities and dreams extend beyond a scanned barcode? Surely we can aspire to help our most vulnerable without demeaning them? Surely the Labour Party can aspire to be better than this?

And if I still haven’t convinced you just how banal the Labour concept of aspiration is, just remember: if you work hard enough, one day you too can shop at John Lewis.


The image featured here is “Shadow shopping” by Matthew G, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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