In his party conference speech this week, David Cameron talked about the importance of aspiration, and his party’s desire to look after those who “strive to make a better life for themselves”. Amongst all of the lies and twisted statistics in that speech, it was the stuff about the virtues of hard work that bothered me the most.
It bothered me, because in his speech, I saw people I recognised – my parents. Both of them left school at sixteen, they started a family in their early twenties, and spent the next few decades working incredibly long hours to keep us all housed and fed.
In the 1980s, when they were up to their eyes in the mortgage for our two-bedroom semi and raising three small children, my mum took a job working nights in a supermarket because it was the only thing going that fitted around my dad’s shifts. My dad – one of the unionised railway workers that Conservatives love to hate – took overtime whenever he could. It didn’t make them rich; it just paid the bills.
My parents aren’t Conservative voters, and it offends me to hear the Prime Minister who was born into immense privilege and reportedly makes thousands of pounds in unearned income from rent, claiming their values for his party. These are the values that have been handed down through generations of working class families, whose Tory bosses got rich on the profits generated by their labour, while they scraped by and counted themselves lucky because having work was better than the alternative.
I don’t think my parents have ever seen hard work as aspirational; it was just what they had to do to get by. Later, when I was in my teens, my mother would use her own experiences as a cautionary tale in an attempt to motivate my sisters and I to get getting good grades. Stick in at school, she’d say, so you don’t end up like me. As we entered adulthood, my mother’s aspiration for her children was not that we would work as hard as she had, but that we wouldn’t have to.
Cameron’s solution to the UK’s economic problems is to get us all doing more work. If you’ve already got a job, work harder, work faster, work longer hours; even if you’re earning less in real terms every year. Then go out and volunteer for the good of the Big Society in your time off. And trust the politicians who tell you it’s all for your own good.
By mentioning the strivers in his conference speech, David Cameron is trying to make them feel appreciated, but it’s an empty gesture. Hard work and cheap work are vital to the Cameron and Osborne’s plans for the economy, but as wages stagnate and employment rights are dismantled, ordinary people aren’t the ones who will benefit from all the extra work they’re being asked to do.