Labour will not reconnect with the British people until parliamentary selections become more open

by Daniel Charleston Downes

If you were to close your eyes and put your fingers in your ears and not participate in any hustings nor read any campaign material you would still be able to predict the shape and tone of the leadership election so far.

You would perhaps put good money on the word ambition to be lumped onto the phrase ‘working people’ and ‘working families’. A new favourite appears to be the maxim that Labour should help people to ‘get on in life’. You would correctly predict that much would be made of the fact that Labour did not understand the needs and wants of the electorate, that we are out of touch and need to ‘connect’ with the public once again.

Much of this rhetoric is platitudinous, but sometimes wisdom can be found in bitesize chunks, much like fortune cookie prophesy. The Conservatives have occupied the space once again of the safe choice for a governing party, the rogues that we all hate to love. People may complain about them, but they get the job done and a necessary job it is indeed. Just by being affable and in possession of reasonable wit, Boris Johnson is able to suggest a further cut to 40% in the top rate of tax with no fear whatsoever that it could isolate him from the Tory leadership. It is Labour that needs this touchy-feely connectiveness stuff more than our current government.

For all that has been said however we don’t seem any nearer to understanding what our relationship with the electorate means. There have been some suggestions of further devolution, in local and regional government, in communities and in public services – placing greater power in the hands of the individual. Ed Miliband spoke much of the power of local Constituency Labour Parties taking on responsibilities in the grassroots and building a national movement from a campaigning core, a concept that I am very passionate about. Both of these philosophies however only attract those that are already engaged in the political process, none of them reach out beyond already established ‘active’ citizens. This represents Labour’s central problem with their isolation from the public.

The fact of it is that Labour does not look like the British public, certainly not at the top. It was Labour in 1997 that brought the first black minister into government, but where is the generation of black leaders in 2015? Labour has done much to legislate towards gender and LGBT equality but both groups are still under-represented in the parliamentary party. We could still, in 2020, have a leadership team of 2 men going into a general election.

Going further into the demographics of Labour’s parliamentary party and of parliament as a whole there are still too few MPs from state schools, lower socio-economic backgrounds and average or below average salary employment backgrounds. It is one thing to go out knocking on doors to talk to people about their experiences and to base policy on what we understand of the struggles that are researched and heard about. It is quite another to have a party consisting of people that have first-hand experience of life and how it is lived in different communities and in different economic circumstances.

The greatest challenge is that so many are simply priced out of representing the party, or any party for that matter, especially in parliament. To get elected some MPs have given up jobs and ploughed through tens of thousands in savings just to make it through a campaign. This is not an option open to a great many people. I, for example, would love to represent my country and my party in parliament in the future. But I doubt that I will ever have the savings to give up a job and invest personal funds in a general election campaign. So I, and many, many others, could be excluded from representing the party at the highest levels on a strictly financial basis.

Now I am in a better position than many, as a teacher I am reasonably paid (a controversial statement in itself perhaps). Can we ever hope that someone on national minimum wage, even the living wage will have the confidence to put themselves forward without the financial security of other potential candidates? And if they did, could they ever hope to win in an electoral and 24 hour news system that puts pressure on candidates to leave their jobs in pursuit of a seat?

If Labour is serious about looking and sounding like Britain then it will have to address these fundamental issues of access to parliamentary engagement. It will need to take a long hard look at selection processes to guarantee that more women, more ethnic minorities, more disabled, LGBT and more working class candidates make it on to ballot papers and are elected. It most certainly needs to abandon the past practice of parachuting in preferred candidates who are exclusively from a very narrow background. When we look and sound like the electorate, the ‘connection’ Labour leaders seek will surely follow.

Dan Downes is a Labour campaigner, a secondary school teacher and blogs at 

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6 Responses to “Labour will not reconnect with the British people until parliamentary selections become more open”

  1. Ben Cobley says:

    So the writer wants to make parliamentary selections more ‘open’ by closing them down? That makes sense.

    He also specifies so many groups needing favourable treatment that there is not possibly enough patronage to go around. By putting more and more power in the hands of central administrators, you simply create the conditions for insiders to rig the system even more – so you may get more diversity on the surface, but your people will become more and more of a type with the same conformist opinions.

    Personally I tend to wonder what’s wrong with democracy: Labour members voting for who they want. We only got democracy in this country less than a hundred years ago but now spend all our time bleating about how rigging the system is better. There’s a form of justice in democracy; OK, there’s another in authoritarianism as suggested here, but I prefer the former.

  2. John P Reid says:

    Where does all this got to have, X person come from,most of the Christian black labour people I know in the east end of London, feel if David Lammy doesn’t make it, they’d prefer Tessa to Sadiq,we were discussing that if wither became mayor there would be a safe seat for a by election, then it was said or if Diane Abbott became labour mayor there would be a by election in hackney,and we all fell about with laughter,as if that would happen in a million years, plus ,most of the BME people at the meeting who weren’t labour members said they’d prefer Zak Goldsmith, in that case

    Mrs John is black,and she isn’t bothered about skin colour of the leaders,the real point is,that labour isn’t facing the real questions, and may have BME people in safe seats,but if we have electoral melt down it won’t matter,
    Paul Boateng used Trot ideas to oust a moderate labour MPs from a safe seat in 1983′ then come. The election labour lost that seat,there’s no reason to believe that,the electorate at that seat didn’t vote for him because he was black, as 4 years later down the road he stood and didn’t have a swing for or against him then, noting labour did as bad in London in 1987 as 1983

    When BME people I know voted Tory in Hornsey in the 80’s or Bexley Heath, they didn’t care about the skin colour of the MP, nor did the Asian people I knew who voted Tory in Essex or High Wycombe

  3. Madasafish says:

    “It will need to take a long hard look at selection processes to guarantee that more women, more ethnic minorities, more disabled, LGBT and more working class candidates make it on to ballot papers and are elected. ”

    And that sums up what is wrong with most Labour thinking.

    Not what’s good for the electorate – but what’s best for the Party…

    And HOW can you guarantee that people will vote for a candidate? You cannot.

  4. swatantra says:

    Where are the factory workers, miners and shop assistants and teaching assistants, the scientists and technicians, the athletes and the secretaries? Too busy working and getting on with their life making ends meet. So we are left with PPE Grads and Spads and the spawn of MPs and people who’ve done a bit in the voluntary sector; and teachers and lecturers and lawyers. Your’re right, the same old profile of a Labour MP.
    Maybe we should just draw lots at a selection meeting so that everyone gets an evens chance. The trick is to have a greater turnover so that none gets too comfortable but is forced to step down after12 years. That way you get more people experiencing the commons, and its not too late to go back into your past profession as a plumber.

  5. Dave Roberts. says:

    Good posts from John P Reid and Swatantra and I am pleased to see that a group that until recently was unmentionable is now fashionable. The white working class. As John pointed out members of various ethnic minority groups vote just the same as everyone else, in their own economic interests. There is no BME or BAME electorate and never was, it was a fiction of the race relations industry.

    If Labour wants power it has to look at the section of the electorate it lost. Very largely white working class people who are either voting Tory or UKIP. It’s as simple as that.

  6. Tafia says:

    If Labour wants power it has to look at the section of the electorate it lost. Very largely white working class people who are either voting Tory or UKIP. It’s as simple as that.

    Is the correct answer. And it will probably be ignored in favour of quotas, positive discrimination and other equally trite bollocks that the white working class wouldn’t bother even pissing on.

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