by Kevin Meagher
The Labour party has always been a strange brew. Intellectual leftists have rubbed up alongside middle-class progressives and gesture politics poseurs. But the party’s strength remains the support it draws from the industrial, urban working-class of the north and midlands.
Yet while the former groups remain heavily in evidence in today’s party, there are now a decreasing number of people on the Labour benches in parliament that look and sound like the majority of working class people who actually vote Labour.
It’s part of a wider problem. A recent report by the Policy Exchange think tank looking into the public appointments system found that “socio-economic background…is neglected by most governmental bodies responsible for public appointments and for equality policies” and recommends addressing the “forgotten dimensions of diversity”.
The report cites the example of magistrates who, as volunteers, “do not need to achieve legal qualifications or a particular career level” before being appointed and yet are still overwhelmingly drawn from a narrow middle-class professional elite. In Manchester and Salford, nearly nine out of ten lay magistrates are from higher managerial and professional backgrounds. Justice, like politics, fails to look like the people it serves.
Plus ça change. The party of working-class heroes Ernest Bevin and Nye Bevan was still led by public schoolboys like Clement Attlee (Haileybury) and Stafford Cripps (Winchester College), Hugh Gaitskell (ditto) and Hugh Dalton (Eton).
At this point it’s important to caveat the whole line of argument about Labour and its diminishing working class-ness (as Eric Joyce recently pointed out). Rather than a single group, ‘working class’ vis-à-vis Labour politics, now has two meanings.
The first definition covers the sons and daughters of manual workers who have gone on to university and if not a career in our most august professions, (which remain defiantly nepotistic) at least had office jobs (often, courtesy of politics) before becoming MPs.
Although highly socially mobile, many remain utterly rooted in the everyday reality of working class people and, for want of a better phrase, “get it”. This group, along with the inter-generationally middle class, make up most of Labour’s parliamentary party.
Then there are those who actually worked in manual jobs for most of their working lives and didn’t assume they would automatically go to university at 18 – never mind end up in Parliament. These are the real deal, but they have all but disappeared from Labour politics. Just four per cent of MPs – across the parliamentary aisles – are said to be from this background (down from 30 per cent in the mid 1960s). Their traditional route into parliament via the Labour party has all but been sealed off by a system which is now utterly skewed against them.
Skewed because the kind of seats in the north and midlands that at one time returned people with genuine working class and grassroots credentials are now routinely used as soft landings for middle-class London-based political apparatchiks, shoe-horned in at the leadership’s whim and usually, ironically, with trade union connivance. Half the shadow cabinet got into parliament this way.
And the undoubted growth in women and (to a lesser degree) ethnic minority MPs has, as the Policy Exchange report argues, taken the focus off the need for socio-economic advancement. The problem is that one measure of equality and progress has trumped another. The use of all-women shortlists has been the main focus of the drive to “make politics look like the people”. Subsequently, the number of women MPs has risen from three per cent in 1979 to 23 per cent today, (with the figure at 33 per cent of Labour MPs).
This has proven to be a boon to London-based women political insiders who would not necessarily fare well in ‘open’ selections (where local men can stand). Not because the Labour party is institutionally sexist – it isn’t – but because people gravitate towards candidates who sound like them and have the same basic assumptions that they do. Political representation is institutionally local.
For most people, it still matters that MPs come from the same streets, drink in the same pubs, or send their kids to the same schools as the people they purport to represent. While working-class men face severe restrictions in even being able to stand for a local seat, the biggest losers in the current system are working-class women representing the places they live.
Often without the polish or connections of London-based female politicos, they are largely absent from the Labour benches in Parliament. The moral indignation of Labour MPs over the bedroom tax or welfare changes is seldom articulated by anyone who has actually lived that life. As the Policy Exchange report argues:
‘Such was the last Labour government’s disregard for its traditional political base that it failed to include the socio-economically deprived in the nine ‘protected characteristics’ in the Equality Act of 2010.’
While the strive for greater equality now takes in age, sex, race, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, sexual orientation, marriage and religion, those with a poorer socio-economic background, or what is commonly understood as coming up the hard way, (usually via the university of hard knocks), are not deemed worthy of special promotion.
But if Labour really wants to make politics look like the people (and address its massive shortfall of working class women) it could encourage a move to see more candidates representing their home seats, perhaps by a simple rule change that means potential candidates for a parliamentary seat must have a clear – and current – connection to it.
Indeed, there is a mechanism to ensure this happens as the review of the trade union link under Ray Collins is also looking for suggestions about how to improve ‘fairness and transparency in Labour selections’. This single move would help to level-off the advantages for middle class women and leadership acolytes, for whom the current system of parliamentary selection works rather too well.
There is no shortage of voices in the party urging a concentration on the needs of southern middle-class voters, so Labour can make room to hear a few more that understand northern working-class ones. And the best placed people to do that are those who actually live there.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut