UCL Policy Lab


Ordinary Hope and the coming general election: a discussion

26 February 2024

Is the theme of Ordinary Hope starting to take hold in UK politics? Claire Ainsley, Tom Baldwin, Anoosh Chakelian, Graeme Cooke and James Purnell discuss how terms like “respect”, “service” and “security” are cropping up more in speeches as we approach the general election.

Politics Ordinary Hope

A version of this essay was first published in Ordinary Hope: A New Way of Changing Our Country Together. Read in full here


“Ordinary hope”, “respect”,  “service” and “security”. These words and phrases are cropping up in political speeches more and more as Britain comes closer to a general election.
The framing of a politics in this way emerges both as a critique of recent poor conduct in politics  – dodgy contracts, hypocrisy as in the partygate scandal, sleaze – but also as a tool to reach out, especially to those voters who identify as working-class and have felt neglected by the political process, at least since the Financial Crisis. 

This framing is not unique to Britain. It was at the heart of Olaf Scholz’s surprisingly successful election campaign in Germany and appears regularly too in the rhetoric of Australia’s Antony Albanese and Joe Biden in the United States. All have run unflashy political campaigns, centring the arguments not on utopian aspiration and grand designs, but on the concerns of everyday communities,  the dignity of work and the need to repair the divide between a remote political class and the people they rely on for electoral support.

To work out how far this idea has to go from simply a buzzword in speeches to a concrete philosophy of politics and government, I spoke to Claire Ainsley (of the Progressive Policy Institute and former Director of Policy for Keir Starmer), Graeme Cooke, (Director of Insight and Policy at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), and James Purnell, (Vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London and a former cabinet minister) and Tom Baldwin, (Author and Political Strategist).

Whether the idea of Ordinary Hope, and its core idea of respect for everyday concerns, can take hold in elite politics may well be key to answering the question of if Britain can renew itself in the face of such daunting challenges. 

Anoosh Chakelian, Britain Editor of the New Statesman


Anoosh Chakelian: I want to discuss this emerging theme of Ordinary Hope and respect for working people within politics. We saw it in Keir Starmer’s speech at the Labour Party  conference, but it is also being used in the US and Joe Biden's campaign, Scholz and Albanese as well. The question for us today is do we see this respect agenda taking hold in elite politics here in the UK?  

Claire Ainsley: The origins of respect first come to the fore with Scholz and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). He was giving voice to a division and fracture that has been happening for a long time, more than two decades - with the financial crisis, the rise of right-wing populism and, in our country, the Brexit vote and this sense of a division. Respect as an organising principle has been given much more prominence, but I don't think we've seen yet just what respect could be as a politics or programme. But I think it may be a vehicle for bridging some of our divides.  It has the potential to be quite profound. 

Graeme Cooke: I think we need to break it down a little bit. That's certainly what we've been doing at UCL and JRF with Ordinary Hope:

I think you can think about respect at a narrative framing level, a substance level and a method level. The first of those is the one we've seen the most often, and certainly in political speeches, as Marc Stears’ essay makes clear. That message is that the success of a country is built from the ordinary everyday acts of citizens, not just from the government on the one hand, or the rich and powerful on the other, which is the traditional left-right answer. This is connected to a desire for politics to speak to and respond to everyday bread and butter concerns rather than abstractions and aggregate measures. I think the question now is what would it look like to push through to policy content on the one hand and a method of governing on the other?  

I think on the policy content, it is about attending to distributional material questions, but also, how people are treated, how people feel and people's sense of control over their lives, as well as material concerns. 

And then on method, the key question is: how do you try and achieve change? How do you govern? There is this notion at the core of Ordinary Hope that government cannot do it on its own.  To succeed, it’s got to be about collaboration. It's got to be a partnership. And it's also about how you try and achieve change, you have to take the autonomy and power and control of individuals really seriously.

James Purnell:  It is interesting hearing the word respect because it takes me straight back to Hazel Blears.  There was a respect agenda under New Labour but it was policy-specific. It was anti-social behaviour, it was about looking after public spaces. Respect, in that way, is fundamentally a retail offer. And that means day to day lives and practical concerns. The interesting question is, you know, in the two-party system. Is about building a coalition which includes the working class and the middle class. The respect agenda is a way to bridge worlds. From council estates, to new builds - people want to feel they are being respected.  

Anoosh Chakelian: And for me as a journalist, if I went to my editor and pitched a piece on the respect agenda, what they would want to see would be ‘show, not tell’. You know, what does it actually mean? So very tangible examples would be the type of thing that would actually be useful for both the media, but also for those people who need to tell stories in order to at least demonstrate a particular sort of political shift. And so how important is it, do you think, for politicians to put some meat on the bones of the respect agenda, or is it enough for them to talk about, you know, how they are trying to reconnect?  

Claire Ainsley: I think we're using it in the sense we think this might have the potential to be a unifying theme. James has highlighted that that potential is only realised if you make it clear who is being respected, who's being disrespected, and what you are going to do about it.  There is the power in using respect in lots of different ways. For example, I think you can look at it from a point of view of respecting workers rights and people's voice at work. And actually Labour has plenty of detail already on what that might look like in the employment rights context. They've said less on this so far, but the potential to think about how you respect viewpoint difference. It’s a major problem on parts of the left progressive side, and more broadly, that we do not have a politics that respects difference of opinion. And that's partly what happened in the post-referendum aftermath, there were a lot of people who felt they hadn't been respected and hadn't been heard, who then were told that they were wrong to have voted the way that they did, and so on. So I think there's potential there for Labour to articulate this. 

Anoosh Chakelian: How much is the agenda still at play in Germany and the US? Has the respect agenda been built on by progressives in Germany and the US?

Claire Ainsley: There are policies that illustrate respect, like Sholz’ campaign pledge to increase the minimum wage. A big part of the agenda in Germany and the US was about speaking to  non-graduate voters. But there are also contradictions. If you look at what Biden has just done in cancelling £127 billion worth of college debt - would not a full respect agenda instead say that we are going to invest in apprenticeships, learning on the job, the sorts of things that speak to non-college voters? So I think there's a risk in a way that we perhaps package up what centre-left leaders are doing under the boundary of respect. And that isn't necessarily the story they're actually telling to the electorate.

Anoosh Chakelian: And Graeme, what about manifestos and policy. How might respect feature in your advice to political parties from an Ordinary Hope perspective? 

Graeme Cooke: I think there are ways in which respect can deal with some blind spots. Too often politicians want big single ideas, grand visions, which may have their place, but there's also an intention to the kind of the everyday and ordinary.  You need to have that in your political toolbox. There's a perfect honourable case for politics, political solutions which make people's lives better, but not necessarily transform everything. I think where you're then trying to design your answer on, say, housing or employment. The obsession with housing policy is always about aggregate numbers, eg. why is 300,000 better than 350,000? I'm not sure that’s the right policy answer. What most people care about is how are we getting more people into sort of decent, secure forms of housing. A politics of respect that takes seriously what the vast majority of people desire seems reasonable to me: you don’t have to go down a financialised, speculative, risky economic strategy which promotes house price growth at the exclusion of all else but instead focus on how do you help more people to own their own home in a sustainable way, or a decent, secure home to people who do rent? 

Anoosh Chakelian: But don’t we need to be more detailed on this agenda in terms of policy before the next election? 

Tom Baldwin: I think it is important that people begin to focus on just how practical and experimental policy needs to become. The media is not good at talking about this. If you talk about repairing policy on immigration, for example, it is actually about how you best process asylum applications fast and treat the people who do that and who are in the system with respect as you do. That's far more effective than the Rwanda scheme but it is not going to get any headlines. And so do we need lots of detailed policies? Or do you instead need a commitment to keep trying. And if one thing doesn't work, try another. Somebody once said to me that, the thing about Starmer is that most politicians define themselves as radical, but  necessarily tempered by pragmatism. But Starmer is pragmatic if necessary, tempered by radicalism. So I think he would do the straightforward thing first and if that doesn't work, you'll try something else. And that's why politics as usual does not quite understand him. He sort of emerges in a position of having achieved something without actually the usual soap opera of, you know, rise and fall, and can he do it? He just does it. That's a crucial form of respect. 

James Purnell: My colleague at UAL, Polly Mackenzie, writes about what she calls ‘humble’ policy making: which can take you into participative democracy which is I think important in this discussion. But I also think in government,  having a clear set of approaches, which could mean Ordinary Hope and respect, is incredibly important. In politics, you need to be able to take decisions based on a set of consistent understandings of what you're trying to do and say. Under New Labour there were a set of frameworks for thinking about how to govern. One of those things was choice and competition. And that might be different this time. It might be respect and so in that way it is important to flesh out the method. 

Graeme Cooke: Yes, and Ordinary Hope and respect speak to both content and method. What you do and how you do it. Obviously respect can be a contested term and one of its strengths is its breadth. We talked a bit about the kind of policy direction it could produce. But I do think a view that government doesn't always know best, the central state doesn't necessarily have the answer to every problem, that you need to think outside of Westminster. It provides a focus on collaboration and partnership. I do think that is that is a strength of Ordinary Hope, the sense that it can speak to how you deliver. And this is where we can see how it could be a tool for mission-led government. A sense of what you are trying to do, and what you are doing to achieve it. If you can have a concept that can sort of bring those two things together, that is a real strength.

Anoosh Chakelian: And do we think this kind of agenda is a bit of a hostage to fortune? We’ve had so many government failings, be it the Post Office, Grenfell or contaminated blood to name but a few. And there is a general feeling of disillusionment, not just against the current government, but the machinery of the state. Is there a risk that Ordinary Hope isn’t able to overcome these structural challenges?

James Purnell: Ideas are always hostages to fortune, aren't they? Otherwise you would say nothing. New Labour used to talk about 'We believe in what works'. And there was a reason for that, because, again, it was about being prepared to use methods which previously Labour had been against, and it was about signifying not being captured by producer interests. I think they’re an interesting comparison with respect and the Big Society. Which was an interesting set of ideas. There were lots of people on the left who had also been working on community organising. And Steve Hilton was clever in grabbing that agenda and making it quite a big thing for the Conservative Party. But then it was difficult to carry that through in a world where there was the financial crisis, and austerity became a more dominant theme. And so it was a hostage to fortune in the sense that when you got into government, things can change, but it did guide a whole bunch of interesting things that they did, and potentially respect could do that as well. 

Tom Baldwin: And even if respect and Ordinary Hope are not fully clear yet, I do think their opposite –  the politics of disrespect  – is apparent. And I think you can date that back way before Partygate, and the current government. You can date it back to Brexit debates, to austerity, and even  back to some of the modernisation and globalisation under New Labour. I think you can probably date it back to Margaret Thatcher - to the sleaze at the end of the Major years. Is a deep, deep in-ground thing and it's not fixed by just talking. It's fixed by doing something. There's no magic bullet. Magic bullet politics is one of the things that's damaged our politics most, because people have been promised that Brexit would transform their lives. Or austerity would change everything. And it's made things worse. And so it's lots of little things. It's often lots of boring things. Because respecting someone isn't necessarily exciting, it's actually quite dull. It's quite hard. Whether this idea succeeds, well we'll see. But certainly I think  this agenda is the right way.