Does Labour have the courage to stand up for the workers?

by Tom Harris

Every elected Labour official has the same experience: hard-working constituents regale us with tales of how they receive no help from the state, whereas the plights of others, usually described as “immigrants” and almost always “unemployed” and “benefit claimants” receive the most attention.

The problem for my party is that such grievances have a dangerous amount of validity.

One parliamentary colleague describes how his father, having worked all his adult life, raised a family in their council house and never failed to pay his rent on time, was philosophical about the fact that his modest request for a new home, closer to relatives, would remain at the bottom of the priorities list. Why? Because he had worked all his adult life and never failed to pay his rent on time.

The government’s various panic-stricken maneuverings over council house tenures reveals that the multi-millionaire, privately educated members of the Cabinet (and I use none of those descriptions in a pejorative sense) are finding it just as hard to get a grip on this aspiration thing as many members of my own party.

The Tories and their Lib Dem partners seem to see council housing as a sign of failure, almost a punishment for not having worked hard enough at school. Their “solution” to the housing shortage is to force those living in such estates to bugger off as soon as they find a job and start to enjoy the fruits of their labour. In a sea of inept initiatives from this government, this is probably the most bonkers of them all: reserve council estates exclusively for those who can’t or won’t work, and remove all the successful, aspirational tenants, often against their will.

Where does that leave young people living in such estates? Where are the role models that teach them that hard work is rewarding? I’ll tell you where: nowhere near you, mate!

Yet some on the left also have a hard time with this whole aspiration thing. I suggested on Twitter some weeks ago that perhaps those who are in employment and have demonstrated a commitment to earn a living should be given some sort of priority over those who don’t. Now, I accept that within the confines of 140 characters, it’s virtually impossible to convey the detail of such an idea and to offer the caveats and qualifications that must be attached. Nevertheless, the idea was up there: hard work should be rewarded.

This was too much for some: “But what about the unemployed? What about the vulnerable? What about the disabled?” I was advocating a return to the Edwardian concept of the deserving and undeserving poor, apparently.

What I was trying (clearly unsuccessfully) to convey was that Labour needs to start coming up with policies to help working people, and to stop assessing those policies exclusively through the prism of their effect on the very poorest in society. That doesn’t mean we don’t care any more about those people, who obviously do need our help and support. It just means that we need to refocus on the workers and give them as much attention as we do the most vulnerable.

So, for example, why not reserve, say, ten per cent, of the highest quality social housing specifically for school leavers who have worked hard at school and then gone on to find employment? They won’t be able to buy their own home yet, and renting in the private sector would probably be unaffordable or would leave them without enough disposable income to put money away for a deposit.

Similarly, I recently suggested (again through Twitter – I really need to start writing on Uncut more) that if we were to expand pre-school provision for three-to-five-year-olds, then we should prioritise the children of those in work. That’s not to say that the current level of provision, which is rightly universal, should be in any way reduced; simply that we recognise that two and a half hours of pre-school care a day is as bad as useless for many working parents, and that full time provision could make a massive difference to the quality of life of working parents.

See what I did there? No mention of unemployed parents, or drug addicts or long-term benefit claimants. This, of course, will be anathema to some. Proposing policies that are specifically and exclusively aimed at helping those groups? Well done, comrade. But do the same for the workers? Unacceptable.

Ironically, in an era when traditional political boundaries have become blurred and ambiguous, political discourse seems to have polarised between those who advocate the cause of the wealthy and those whose overriding concern is the dispossessed.

But here’s the thing: most ordinary voters are neither wealthy nor dispossessed. They’re what Ed Miliband rightly calls the “squeezed middle”. And Labour must not allow “common denominator politics” to force every idea through a sieve that ensures the only policies we adopt are those whose outcomes are the same for everybody – not least because such an aim is impossible to achieve anyway.

Too many of those who work hard, provide for their families without relying on the state and who pay their rents and mortgages on time each month feel that Labour doesn’t care about them, that they’re not our priority.

But they should be.

One last sobering thought: there was a time in our party’s history when a Labour MP didn’t have to make the case for the workers being our priority.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South.

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14 Responses to “Does Labour have the courage to stand up for the workers?”

  1. Kryz says:

    I agree with the above points, labour lost me personally when it stopped being aspirational. if you were my MP I’d vote for you.

  2. I think the main problem with reserving 10% of council stock is that there’s an acute shortage of housing, there simply isn’t enough to go around. This would mean that people who desperately need it are denied it.

    OTOH, if this goes hand-in-hand with a concerted building program using all those underutilised construction workers that’d be just fine 😉

  3. Luke Beesley says:

    The problem, as I see it, is that unless we prioritise immediately on job creation and sustainability – rather than ‘group based’ policies, then, the ‘value’ difference between working people and the currently unemployed becomes all but arbitrary. Those who receive the most help – or be prioritised – will do so after finding employment in a labour which is, let’s face it, based on luck as much as anything else at this current moment in time. Its not that I disagree with individual policies along these lines (the childcare initiative is a pretty good one), but, setting up a dichotomy within services based on work amid high unemployment is bound to leave unemployed workers feeling unjustly treated. Once again, it is in creating jobs and stopping redundancies that we best help the workers of Great Britain, by helping the unemployed become workers and allowing workers to remain so

  4. Vishal says:

    Really good article. The problem is not just with Labour or the Tories – it is the level of debate, the language used both by media commentators AND politicians to react to any new idea.

    It is a chicken and egg story but basically there is no debate without every word, every phrase being seized upon and blown out of proportion.

    Wonder if the parties could come to an agreement to debate like grown ups and to ignore newspaper headlines and article writers like Littlejohn at one end of the spectrum to Madame Tonybee at the other?

  5. U Nimpressed says:

    .. ..or why not take say, 10% of the 18% rise in wealth that the richest 1000 people in the UK received last year and use it to create jobs building homes for rent.That would be standing up for the workers, rather than this pathetic attempt to divide the poor.

    I’ll stop laughing at the claim by Mr H that he is standing up for the workers when he supports the repeal of anti trade union legislation.

  6. Tim Sewell says:

    What you say is undeniable but the problem, as Aidan points out, is the terrible shortage of social housing – a shortage Labour shamefully failed to address in 13 years in government. When there is so little it has to be targeted at those who without the help will end up on the streets.

    Presumably you’ll be pushing for us to adopt a manifesto pledge promising massive investment to restore the availability and quality of social housing to pre-right to buy levels.

  7. Nikostratos says:


    Define ‘worked hard’ or ‘work hard’ is that 90 hrs a week or getting good grades at school obviously someone who is not so bright may work tremendously hard and still get lower grades than a lazy but clever person.

    Or should we help a hardworking immigrant rather than a born and bred British citizen who wont work I mean bin them or find a way to make them work after all
    should we look after our own even it requires a lot of effort. or perhaps dont bother and take the easy option by aiding the immigrant( a lot of employers do you know).

    ‘One last sobering thought: there was a time in our party’s history when a Labour MP didn’t have to make the case for the workers being our priority.’

    Err! that was before you lot took up Thatchers policy’s and let British manufacturing go down the shi##er

  8. AmberStar says:

    Support for workers could be seen as subsidising their employers. Tax credits, child-care vouchers & low cost housing all mean workers can accept wages which don’t cover the ‘real’ cost of living & corporations get to enjoy (yet more) indirect subsidies.

    There’s an argument to be had about whether support for working people actually keeps wages for those at the bottom lower than they would be thus making it harder for them to attain an income which supports e.g. a mortgage for a home in an area of their choice.

    Any thoughts on these debating points, Tom?

  9. Henrik says:

    A mild and understated “huzzah” for that comrade who has gone back to his Marx and discovered that equality of opportunity is a worthwhile aspiration, while equality of outcome is a demotivating social disaster.

  10. Richard says:

    For 13 long years the Labour Party didn’t have the balls to stick up for the workers, shamefully turning its back on them to cosy up to high finance instead, and in the process lost 5 million votes in that constituency, its core vote! Tom Harris can suggest whatever he likes, but without an apology I can only pour scorn on his arrogance.
    And he also conveniently overlooks Labour’s dire record on social housing. Not only did it continue Thatcher’s policy of selling off existing social housing, it dismally failed to build anywhere near enough homes and all that while the economy was booming! Little wonder then that there is close to 5 million people waiting for a home now. An apology for that wouldn’t go amiss either.

  11. Dan McCurry says:

    This piece follows on from the Purnell argument on Newsnight. People who work pay for the National Insurance, but don’t get “insured”. They are subsidising people who don’t work.
    It seems as if there is a major shift happening in Labour policy if this becomes a welcome consensus.

  12. Indy says:

    I agree that people often complain that they receive no help from the state while others do. They see that as unfair primarily because they have paid into the system but perceive themselves as getting less back than others who have not paid into the system.

    There could be a debate about that but what I don’t understand is how you square this article with a desire to remove universal services/benefits like the free bus pass, free prescriptions and the winter fuel allowance and make them means-tested and needs- based.

    Would that not just exacerbate the problem?

  13. NickOLarse says:

    Does Labour have the courage to stand up for the workers? The answer appears to be no.

    There are around 1.5 million people on council waiting lists and the queue is going to get longer as the number of repossessions inevitably increases. Construction companies, however, are making huge profits. Will Labour propose that their profits be taxed to fund new council housing? I doubt it.

    Many young people see that in the current economic climate qualifications become even more essential if they are to find employment. Will Labour propose a top-rate tax increase to fund the scrapping of tuition fees? I don’t think so.

    HSBC has announced profits of profits of £7 billion for the first six months of this year. At the same time it said it would cut 25,000 jobs to save money. Will Labour propose taxing the profits to help those losing their jobs? That is unlikely.

    Public sector workers in Southampton are on strike against a 5% pay cut. Will the Labour leadership speak out in support of the strikers, or call for a repeal of the Tory anti-union laws?

    The answer is no in every case. The answer is no because Labour has swallowed the free-market rhetoric of the right, and are too cowardly to stand up to the wealthy profiteers. So if they can’t stand up to them then they need others to blame for the crisis. Who is blamed? Immigrants, the unemployed and benefit claimants, who are seperated off from ‘hard-working’ members of the working class. There is not a “dangerous amount of validity” in the claim that they receive favourable treatment, but the blame heaped on them is a direct result of Labour’s alliances with the bankers, with big business and with Rupert Murdoch.

    As the crisis deepens people will become radicalised. If Labour does not shift its thinking now, and start to challenge the free-market idealogues, then they will be sidelined.

  14. Jim Caddis says:

    “unemployed” and “benefit claimants” receive the most attention.

    Pry tell me what attention that is??? Could it be that benefit increases are now based on the lower rate of inflation? Could it be that this winter due to skyrocketing energy costs these same people who get everything will have to choose between heat or eat??

    This piece is hypocritical, the reason your parliamentary colleague’s father is bottom of the list is because there are those in greater need. As for reserving 10% of the highest quality social housing specifically for school leavers! Get a grip, why would a school leaver want the burden of a council house round their necks. In fact why do 16 year olds have the right to a council house when we have families who can’t get a house? Yet again you prove you are no better than the old Labour mindset, totally out of touch with the real world and the issues that affect the working classes, employed or unemployed. Tell me, for someone like myself, worked all my days, brought up 3 children and always paid my rent etc. and now find myself unemployed, do you really think I would stand by and be penalised in favour of those still fortunate to be in employment. Looks to me that the Labour review in Scotland has a long way to go to win back voters when this drivel is being spouted by someone who aspires to be First Minister. Your ideas smack of Thatcherism .

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