Is there anything more dispiriting than the Labour leadership contest? Vapid buzzwords about ‘aspiration’ abound, along with platitudes they don’t mean about ‘listening’ to voters and gaining ‘trust’ on Labour’s ability to handle the economy. Does nobody have what Ronald Reagan called “the Vision thing”?
The simple answer is ‘no’. Labour’s stopped doing vision. They do ‘aspiration’, which means hot housing kids in schools to burn them out fully, ready for a life of mindless acceptance of insecurity and unreasonable demands from employers. Aspiration is a John Lewis sofa and a box set of escapism. It’s a maxed out credit card at home, whilst swallowing nonsense about the dangers of governments doing the same. These are fairy tales spun from the unpromising material of our insecure lives as they are lived today.
Labour seems to think that Ed Miliband tried the vision thing, and failed. ‘One Nation’, equality, all that guff; the voters didn’t buy it.
On that they are right. Liberty belongs to the neolibs, as a freedom for wealth and power to be unconstrained. For the many, liberty is to be restricted by the surveillance state. Equality is a dirty word these days, the opposite of sacred aspiration. It’s “bog standard” comprehensive schools, and public libraries, and municipal swimming pools. No one wants them, do they? As for fraternity, forget it. Notions of solidarity belong to a sepia world of brass bands and plucky match girls. ‘Get with the programme!’ as the rampant right-wing press might say.
So is there a vision that the left might offer that could have any popular resonance? I think there is.
My watchword would be ‘decency’. It is an old fashioned sort of word, I accept. In its popular sense it is freighted with moral undertones. We shouldn’t be afraid of that. That we can be proud of our ethical beliefs, unlike those who believe in an amoral market, is a strength. So let us unpack ‘decency’.
Decency is about living lives free of undue stress and worry, safe in the knowledge that we can form relationships, bring up families, and enjoy a rounded life without fear of being without a home fit for purpose, a job that pays a living wage, an education that is fun as well as useful, a health service, and respectful social care in old age or infirmity.
Decency is not about ‘striving’, ‘working hard’, or, God forbid, ‘aspiration’. Those things are either meaningless, or can be taken as given. Meaningful work can be hard, and sometimes it can be rewarding, full of camaraderie, an enhancement to life. Most people ‘strive’, but not for status or narrow material rewards. Baking cakes, playing team sports, volunteering, all may involve striving to reach goals, but they are about life, not lucre. Decency is about a life where children have proper childhoods, nutritious meals, and a warm bed in a loving home. Decency alleviates unnecessary stress, and gives everyone space for personal fulfilment. Decency is valuing us all for who we are and what we can do.
If that doesn’t sound very exciting, that’s because the excitement comes once we have reached the basic threshold of decency; when we know we can take risks, and fly or fall, safe in the knowledge that the safety net is there to care for us if we should need it. Decency is what makes all else possible.
All we need now is a plausible prophet of decency.