If working class apathy with Labour becomes permanent, then the party’s over

by Kevin Meagher

Twenty years ago, I took my father to hear John Prescott speak at Bolton Town Hall as part of his Red Rose tour. This was one of those “ra-ra” events on the road to the triumph of 1997. Optimism was high. Promises were easy. The Tories were a shower and New Labour had the answers.

In his inimitable podium-thumping style, Prescott told the packed hall that the capital receipts from council house sales of the 1980s – that local authorities were banned from spending – would be released in order to build new houses.

This was one of the party’s big policy promises at the time. It would address housing shortages, (that were already apparent), as well as putting hundreds of thousands of building workers, like my dad, back to work after the deep recession of the early 1990s, which had hit construction particularly hard.

It was the kind of rooted, common-sense measure that spoke directly to millions of voters like him at the sharp end of a Thatcherite economy that had left the North in the deep freeze. Now, it was our turn. Fast forward a decade though and things didn’t quite work out as planned.

By then, Prescott’s capital receipts pledge had turned into the Decent Homes Programme. A £19 billion pound effort to renovate dilapidated social houses with new bathrooms, kitchens and roofs.

In reality, it saw expensive contractors soaking up oodles of public cash. According to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, costs of the programme doubled to £38 billion by 2010, without creating extra new homes or the scale of jobs that sort of public investment should have done – (or, indeed, that Prescott had promised would happen that night in Bolton).

What the last Labour government did deliver was the lowest rates of new house-building since the Second World War. Unfathomably, Labour ministers were more concerned about helping Middle England’s property values to appreciate than they were in tackling housing shortages for first-time buyers or putting construction workers back to work.

As a result, people in the private house-building industry in the north of England like my Dad, core Labour people, had little to thank the last Labour government for. Yes, the NHS got a lot better and public services generally improved, but politics is, ultimately, contractual, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown simply didn’t look after the economic interests of people like him. A rising tide of growth through the Noughties, fuelled by public spending and skewed towards the South East of England, did not raise all boats equally. Especially the further north you went.

Others have their own tales, but this is mine. It’s why so many working class people I know no longer intuitively believe Labour represents their economic interests. They think the party is preoccupied with buying-off public sector professionals, caving in to corporate greed, pacifying the middle class and, yes, letting the idle sit on their backsides.

They don’t feel Labour empathises with the low-paid, non-unionised private sector worker (or self-employed bricklayer like my dad). Too often, all they hear are Labour politicians offering the inevitability of globalisation or European integration as reasons why it’s the harsh free market for them, but not for others.

What should be worrying Labour strategists following the utter shambles in Heywood and Middleton, where UKIP came 600 votes off capturing a safe Labour seat, is whether this is just a protest – a blip, a temporary phenomenon – or something structural and permanent.

There is no love for UKIP out there, but decrying them for being “more Tory than the Tories” when workers know full well that it was the last Labour government that opened the borders and made them fight for their living standards, simply will not cut it.

Yesterday, Ed Miliband started to correct this imbalance, promising to ban employers using immigrant labour to undercut wages or conditions of people here and to stop recruitment agencies only hiring foreign workers.

Is that even possible? We’ll see, but the stakes are now genuine. The risk is that if Labour is undergoing a structural haemorrhage of working class support – and nothing is done to correct it – then we are surely living in the party’s last days.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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16 Responses to “If working class apathy with Labour becomes permanent, then the party’s over”

  1. Vern says:

    Kevin, I too am a construction worker and agree with much of what you say. However, you also suggest that there is no love for UKIP out there….
    You need to wake up very soon because there is love, real affection for a party and its leader who appears to be doing a very good job of listening to those people so badly affected by the last Labour Govt and this one too.
    You have until Spring 2015

  2. e says:

    You begin by explaining how Labour didn’t live up to its promise to once again make housing accessible to British workers, and in the process, support much needed employment. And you end on: the way to deal with UKIP/the resulting haemorrhaging of support for Labour is by addressing immigration because this “made them fight for their living standards”.

    Are you agreeing with UKIP’s analysis then? Are you saying free movement of workers was a cause of Labours failure to live up to its promise? If so, why shouldn’t we all just vote UKIP then?

    You must know that religious adherence to current economic thinking isn’t going to fix your core voters fight for their living standards. From my vantage point of being one of “them”, struggling now just to survive, I reckon you’re just kidding…Really Labour’s just keeping the reason to vote Labour, rather than green, hidden until closer to the election.

  3. Tafia says:

    Related, latest voting intentions in Scotland (bearing in mind Lamont has quit citing she has become “exasperated with internal criticism of her leadership and continued interference from the UK Labour Party.” ( I reckon some nasty things will be leaked to the Scottish press in the next few weeks LOL )

    Westminster Voting Intention 2015 (2010 % Votes)
    SNP 42.0% (19.9%)
    LAB 26.1% (42.0%)
    CON 16.0% (16.7%)
    LIB 6.0% (18.9%)
    EC Predicted Seats : SNP 46, LAB 11, CON 1, LIB 1

    based on the Scottish subsamples from seven GB-wide polls – four from YouGov, two from Populus and one from Ashcroft. http://scotgoespop.blogspot.co.uk/

  4. Just every so often Kevin posts an article which makes a lot of sense. The problem he seems to now realize is the Blairite Progress mantra has come close to destroying the Labour Party. What can be done when these people pretty much control the party and the election campaign. They have created a monster and don’t know what to do with it as it all goes so terribly wrong. We are seeing the results of the likes McTernun saying that the core vote is no longer needed. Just scan Marchant’s piece a few posts earlier. He can’t blame the left, not even his favourite nutters in the Peace Now movement. All he is left with are British Muslims which seem to be his new whipping boys. I wonder if we will see Rob move to the far right like Oswald Mosley did in the thirties.

    Progress, via Douglas Alexander, have decided to fight the general election with the ‘limited offer’ 35% strategy, but everyone else can see that UKIP’s successes change that game plan. The stupidity during the Scottish referendum campaign of marching together with the coalition and various Orangemen has all but destroyed the Scottish Labour as a possible governing party there.

    Having said that I can’t offer an answer. It seems to me that win or lose in May the party has big problems because it’s controlled by a clique of people who have no real social democratic beliefs. It’s full of ambitious careerist clones who have a greater love for themselves and their own advancement rather than cures for the increasingly unequal society we live in.

  5. Madasafish says:

    The Conservatives will win the next general election because of Ed Miliband’s failure to connect with voters, Tony Blair has said.


  6. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Yes, Labour had a chance and threw it away, ironically there was never (as Blair would like to think it) a common narrative (beyond getting with the same old administration that had been in power for 18 years) that unified the party because the politics of division were being played from the very start.

    Trust is gone, the “new generation” who cashed in from the last administration are on the throne and the beneficiaries who inherited their positions and the very people who were betrayed are no longer (remember the David Milliband Leadership campaign explaining how Labour had mostly middle class (whatever that means) members now)represented by Labour nor can they be for a very, very long time. Milliband will say anything he is desperate to keep the money rolling in to pay for those very fortunate, if not able “volunteers” lol at Labour HQ. Friends, relatives chums and certainly not working class idealists. The question on whether to vote Labour is is: are the working classes ready for more punishment? Because Labour has plenty more to give 🙂

  7. davud walsh says:

    Perhaps Kevin can tell us how we can make globalisation go away ?

  8. Keith says:

    I couldn’t agree more Kevin. Furthermore, I cant see how the current Labour bunch will have any idea of how to deal with this dilemma for they are all associated with the New Labour culture which has got us into this mess. New Labour supporters claim that Blair won three elections but, it is Blair and Brown and New Labour who have (in the longer term) destroyed the party, for they are the ones who precipitated this complete disconnect with the voters.

    They destroyed the democratic link between the members and leadership, and that is why Brown was able to force his way to power without being elected. They run the party as an elite who took advice from spin doctors and ignored the membership and unions. That is why them sucking up to the super rich and wasting vast sums of tax payers money on PFI and private equity schemes which put billions in the pockets of the super rich , and is partly why the NHS is in so much trouble now. They run up a huge debt binge off the back of the house price inflation at that time, but we ended up with a huge hangover in 2008 where we had to bail out the banks with £85 billion taxpayers money that we will all be paying for years to come. As you say Kevin, they did not increase the new housing stock at all, instead doling out over £20 billion to landlords in housing benefit. No wonder their attacks on the Tories record of house building falls on deaf ears. That is without even describing the human misery from Blair’s illegal misadventures in Iraq and other countries, and the immigration issue. They were obsessed with winning over the Tory press and super rich and thought that by Blair’s third way (being all things to all people) they could win permanent power, because the working classes had nowhere else to go but Labour. Their whole raison d’etre become based on power and their principles and roots of Labour were binned.

    Yet, not one of the current lot has shown any contrition whatsoever, or even acknowledged these mistakes. Instead, they all pretend that everything was fine. They are completely devoid of courage and refuse to debate what happened between 1997 and 2010, so, Labour is sleepwalking to inevitable demise. They may just get elected in 2015 by virtue of the way the voting system gives them a big advantage but don’t be surprised if their core vote, that they have always taken for granted, turn on them in the next general election. It will be nothing short of what they deserve.

  9. Tafia says:

    You can find the stats at the ONS. Social house building for rent – including council, housing association etc was higher per year under Thatcher and Major than it was under Blair & Brown. Even Cameron – in the depths of recession with a massive crash in construction, was still building as much as Blair and Brown were.

    It’s something Labour don’t like to talk about and it’s hardly surprising.

    The official data shows that the Blair and Brown governments built 7,870 council houses (local authority tenure) over the course of 13 years. (If we don’t include 2010 – the year when David Cameron became PM – this number drops to 6,510.) This contrasts with the record of Thatcher’s government, which never built fewer than 17,710 local authority homes in a year. This does not include Housing Association housing – including Housing Association shows that Labours best year was 2009 – and that that only bettered the Tories for 87, 88, 89 & 90. The rest of the time the tories were top dogs at providing secure homes for rent to people.

    So to people at the bottom what does this say? It says if you want an affordable rent and security of tenure then you stand a better chance under the tories and have done for 31 of the last 35 years. And that is a shameful record for Labour – utterly shameful.

    In fact Labour’s only song seems to be to build more affordable housing that isn’t really affordable to the people that actually need it – those earning minimum wage or close to it and/or those in chaotic employment caused by zero-hour contracts.

    A so-called affordable 2 bed terraced house is not affordable unless a couple with a full time NMW earner and a part-time NMW earner can afford it and to call it affordable when it isn’t is not only insulting to the low paid it’s also a blatant lie.

    Just think back to the early 1970’s when I entered the job market. A bus driver could afford to support a stay-at-home wife, a couple of kids and buy a house. And he didn’t need in work benefits like tax credits.

    We have even reached a point in the housing market now where mortgage providers accept benefits as part of your income (tax credits), – and that is going to cause a crash that will make 2007/2008 look like a mere blip.

    And to add to the pantomime (if that were at all possible) we now allow people to raid their pension pots (which were heavily subsidised by the taxpayer anyway) to do as they like with the cash – and the reason behind it really is to allow the older generation to help their off-spring buy housing (which in turn will further fuel house prices as well as increase pensioner poverty and reliance on pensioner tax credits {increasing the benfit bill} because they’ve blown their pot.

    There is only one way out of this mess – force the price of housing down by building in excess of demand – and the tories believe that that requires 300,000 dwellings per year for the next decade at least, not including replacement stock – in short, highly bloody unlikely. And anyway, the demand is not even across the country – where I live our county and the next three at least have declining populations and a surplus of housing as a result, which is being hoovered up as holiday homes.

  10. John Reid says:

    Keith OK but it could be argued Thatcher Major won 4 elections but the it was there fault Labour won the next 3 Or wilson won 4 but it was him let Tony Benn Nationalise and bankrupt the country plus Union militantism, that Let the Tories win the next 4 elections, the difference now is that the days of parties needing 11- 14 million votes are over, and no party is likely to get 40% of the vote in the next 25 years.
    So where Blair Brown and co, have let immigration out of control, forgot the Dcottish working class, oe let the Rotherham scandal take place, and misunderstood the working class vote. In outer london, it doesn’t mean labour can’t win an election with 35% of the vote 9m votes

  11. paul barker says:

    The article leaves the best to the end – “we are living in The Partys last days.”
    If its any comfort I think both Labour & Tories are dying, at least in their present forms. Our Politics has been turned on its head, it used to be that anything that was bad for The Tories was good for Labour & vice versa. Now the rise of multi-party politics & the revolt against the centre are killing both Parties.

  12. Landless Peasant says:

    “letting the idle sit on their backsides”

    “the last Labour government that opened the borders and made them fight for their living standards”

    “ban employers using immigrant labour to undercut wages or conditions of people here”

    Deary me, who wrote this article, Nigel Fromage? It is sentiments such as the ones expressed in this piece that undermine and betray the Labour Party that I once knew. The Capitalists are our enemy, not foreigners or unemployed people. Get back to being a proper Left-wing Socialist party with true Marxist ideals then people like me might vote Labour once more. But adopt the stance of the Right-wing nutjobs and I’m voting Green.

  13. Landless Peasant says:

    BTW, the Party was over when you ditched Clause IV.

  14. John reid says:

    Landless peasant, you do realise the Tories haven’t won an election since we ditched clause 4 something rhat Gaitskell wanted to do in 1960

  15. paul barker says:

    According to The Mirror, Labour are now encouraging “their” Voters to vote for UKIP in Rochester. I wonder if anyone has told The Labour Candidate ?

  16. Jon Lansman says:

    Missed this at the time, Kevin – good piece

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