The exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions in the middle of January revealed how easy it is for Cameron to bat away arguments about the unfairness of cutting nursing bursaries and maintenance grants. Corbyn came across strongly at the end of his questions with his line of questioning with his points on nursing but Cameron’s lines about ‘uncapping aspiration’ and his argument about economic security at the end were strong and politically damaging.
Here’s a few Corbyn could use in reply: the new funding system is a policy of broken aspiration, lifetime debt and economic hypocrisy. Taking these last two points first, for literally millions of young people the Tories are the party of deficit-makers. For a party that continues to position itself on the economy in relation to government debt, they are strangely insistent on indebting an entire generation up to the eye-balls. This contradiction should be exploited politically and Labour quite simply never has.
On the issue of aspiration, picking out teachers and nurses is symbolically important: both of these are careers which became associated with upward social mobility over the 20th century. But it isn’t enough to talk about the aspiration of safe Labour voters. The greatest political weakness of the Conservative party is the economic vulnerability of the working lower-middle class which their higher education reforms are undoubtedly damaging. Poorer students will now graduate with an average of £12,500 more debt than their wealthier peers. This coincides with the broader changes in the housing market which has seen house ownership and mortgage rates fall since the financial crisis, across all income quintiles and especially for the bottom 60% of households. Fundamentally the aspiration to owner-occupancy increasingly difficult if not impossible for more and more people. Aspiration based around these norms is increasingly vulnerable – it is at least breaking if not broken.
Labour desperately needs to appeal to this demographic but this has to go beyond an electoral strategy. Having soundbites that people understand that we can repeat over and over again matters. But it matters not for the cynical reasons of the Conservatives – what we are engaged in is a struggle to transform the political ‘common sense’ of people and we need to build a movement which can do this. We are trying to challenge the long-term occupancy of power – not just in a political sense but in the deep transformative way that Thatcher shifted English society and culture rightwards. For the first time in my lifetime there is just the possibility that the left could move onto the front foot.
By talking about education and housing we pick away at two areas which are now far more vulnerable areas of social policy for the Conservatives. In these circumstances, social mobility itself as it has been conceived of, i.e. the fair chance through education of free upward (never downward) movement, is politically vulnerable. In an immediate sense, there is a clear tilting of the scales against the poorest and most debt-averse students. But this crisis runs far deeper.
A generation of more affluent though not rich young people, and, let us not forget this essential political point, their parents, are facing the serious likelihood of serious difficulties accessing the housing market combined with a lifetime of debt repayment. Conservative housing policy will deepen social and racial cleansing of inner-city housing, but it does so in a desperate attempt to prop-up middle-class first-time buyers. The trick for Labour is to come up with a policy which speaks to that middle-class anxiety, not because they are our priority but because their status represents the security that many aspire to. We shouldn’t reject that as bourgeois, we should acknowledge that this is the language of the everyday life that people want.
There is a fundamental need for a rigorously thought-out political programme from Labour which highlights these weaknesses, critiques the old models and puts something new in their place. Just as McDonnell announced with reference to cooperative models of worker ownership, ‘we cannot simply turn the clock back’ to old forms of public ownership. The same is true in higher education and we need a systematic programme for a radical alternative to back up the soundbites.
If as Stuart Hall argued, drawing on Gramsci, ‘every crisis is also a moment of reconstruction; that there is no destruction which is not, also, reconstruction’ then we have to make sure we win the political argument of the current crisis. This is not just an economic crisis – the crises within education and housing are an opportunity to re-shape not only the political agenda but the deeper social and cultural assumptions which are rapidly being shown to be contradictory. Cameron and the old hegemony of the new right is vulnerable and, with Corbyn as leader, there is an opening for an offensive from the left.