A family story of where Labour went wrong, by Helen Godwin Teige

In 1997 my entire family voted for Tony Blair. We were genuinely thrilled as we celebrated the landslide. I was 21 and optimistic after a lifetime of Conservative government.

Fast forward to 2010 and only half of us still gave Labour our vote, with my mother making it very clear that this was their last chance. Interestingly, of the Labour voters, two of us are now members. We both got involved in the election campaign and felt passionately that Labour was the right party, on policy across the board and particularly to get us out of the recession.

But what about the rest of my family; what went wrong?

I should explain what sort of family we are. We are working class, although arguably we have moved to a more middle class existence. Within the family we have diverse careers and salaries. We have had a fair and moral upbringing. We live within our means and aren’t greedy. Here are the things that I believe defined and changed our politics, and those of other families, in the past 13 years.

1. The Iraq war. This led to me leaving the Labour party for 4 years and it was the final nail in Tony Blair’s coffin for my parents. This was an illegal war, without the backing of the British public and the first and only time I saw my mother get politicised (she even considered coming to London for the march). It felt as though Blair had completely lost interest in Britain and our domestic issues and that he was already cosying up to statesmen all over the world and getting into America’s back pocket in preparation for his post-politics millionaire lifestyle. This is history, and cannot be altered; but it was still not forgotten by the electorate in 2010.

2. Gordon Brown. Three of us were fans of Brown, cut to two after the Gillian Duffy affair. Despite the disappointment and frustration of all with the Blair spin years we discovered we didn’t want the alternative either. Brown unfortunately proved that you can’t be a 21st century PM unless you can act up for the media, smile naturally and play Mr Nice Guy. Substance, it seems doesn’t win you votes. People, and it would appear my family included, prefer someone with more charm and gloss to lead the country. There is no doubt that Labour has learned its lesson. All the leadership candidates are more media savvy, friendly and malleable than the former prime minister

3. Immigration. We are not a racist family. Nevertheless, my parents – like millions of other Labour and ex-Labour voters – are from the Duffy school of thought. When I ask them what negative experiences of immigration they have personally experienced they don’t have any answers. It is a perceived issue and their evidence includes: random stories from the Daily Mail, increased parking and traffic problems, Latvian neighbours (whom they very much like) and a lack of English spoken in a nearby High Street.

Yet both work closely with foreigners and are interested in and respectful of other cultures. Pretty depressing, but unfortunately their reasoning is far from unique amongst working class Britons. The leadership candidates have all agreed that complaints about immigration are often a smokescreen for other social issues such as housing, transport, poor town planning and run down areas. We all know that cultural diversity adds to our society, but that doesn’t appease people who see their immediate geography changing and link it with immigration almost by default.

Andy Burnham seems to be the only candidate speaking with an understanding of the average working class person and their concerns on this issue. It is not an easy subject, and some might argue that Labour were in the process of tackling it with their points based system, but this simply wasn’t communicated well enough. Clearly, we are in the EU and we can’t change history with regard to the east European immigrants, many of whom are no longer in the UK. The solution? Continue to educate and do not be afraid to celebrate the benefits of our society while listening to what the electorate actually wants, and maintaining an open, mature debate.

4. The Media. My family got scared. They read about the deficit and decided it was a big, dark monster that was going to get us if Labour got back in. They didn’t read complex economic analysis or read articles by leading economists. They heard a figure and it had the desired effect on them. They also saw how the media only printed pictures of Gordon Brown grimacing, frowning, mouth agape or in an equally unflattering pose. They believed that most of the people on benefits were lazy, undermotivated layabouts sponging off the government. They thought that all teenagers in baggy clothes talking ‘street’ were trouble. In essence they believed that Britain is broken.

It is too soon for the press to fall in back in love with Labour. But who knows – as things turn sour for the ConDem coalition maybe the nation will embrace an Ed, a Miliband, an Andy or Diane. The country nearly always leans to the left when a Tory government is in power, and surely this pattern will be replicated, especially given the regressive politics of this government.

On the positive side: what made me and my sister get involved and continue to do so post-election? We believe in right and wrong. We simply don’t think it is right to take away benefits from the poorest, cut spending in areas where the most vulnerable need support and let the rich continue to get richer. We don’t mind paying our taxes if it makes Britain a better country. We will happily pay our fair share and more if necessary.

We want to see the gap between rich and poor reduced, we want each child to have an equal start in life, we want to celebrate the tolerant and diverse Britain that we live in. Our lives improved between 1997 and 2010. We bought homes; we travelled; we have never been unemployed; our gay friends don’t encounter prejudices; we don’t experience sexism and we live in a fair tolerant society that we all helped to create. Our job for the next five years is to ensure that as life in Britain becomes harder, tougher and more unequal we are fighting for a fairer country as part of the Labour party.

Helen Godwin Teige is a new mother and Labour blogger.

Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to “A family story of where Labour went wrong, by Helen Godwin Teige”

  1. Nick Black says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I think there is much hope for Labour as the Liberals have effectively shot themselves in the foot and committed political suicide.
    People like myself, who struggled to vote Labour in light of the Iraq war and perceived lies to the nation, would look to the Liberals as a centre-left party without any leanings towards the unions or super-rich.
    Come the next election, the rise in support for the Liberals is over and Labour will benefit most from that loss.
    The Labour party needs to focus on people like me, who resent the ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude of the Tories (or looking after your own) and would like a prosperous nation with a conscience rather than just a great place for business.

  2. Jane says:

    I read this comment with interest as I and my husband abandoned labour at the last election. A most difficult decision as we are both in our mid 60’s and former activists. We stood by them in the disaster years such as 1983 but somehow could not stomach doing so again.

    We both supported Tony Blair and indeed after much soul searching the Iraq war. We thought Tony Blair was an excellent PM, represented the country well on the world stage and was very much in touch with our aspirations and views. We still hold him in high esteem despite all the evidence now coming out of the Chilcott enquiry. We were appalled that he was ousted form office and believe that GB was complicit in the plot. We noted that all signatories to the letter were promoted under GB’s premiership. We thought then that we could not vote for such a man but left the decision to this year.

    We thought GB was a disastrous PM. We loathed the briefings against colleagues by No10 and the thugs who surrounded the then PM. We hated the short termism, the lack of any policies or vision and hated the briefings on class and Eton. GB did not behave as a PM – we expect the PM to rise above such antics. We both held professional careers and both have degrees and were appalled at such behaviour and did not understand whom it was meant to appeal to? Similarly we were not impressed with the continuous message of labour investments vs Tory cuts.

    Immigration is not an issue for me as I live in a rural community. I would say that without migrant labour, the food industry in my area would not be able to survive. There are mutterings but in the main migrant labour has been integrated into the community.

    I am able to sift what the media say about scroungers. However, like many people we are aware of the abuse of the welfare system. Further, dependency on welfare has increased under Labour and far too many people are entitled to benefits who do not need them. I refer to Child Tax credits and of course I myself get a fuel grant. I think the latter should only be provided to those on pension credit. I remain angry that the 10p tax band was removed.

    I too want a fair and just society. I want everyone to contribute to that society and to look after the vulnerable who are unable to look after themselves. I also want less interference in my life by the State and to reintroduce values that I was brought up with that we all worked together for the good of the community. I was not brought up with the notion that the State would provide for everything and believe this has developed further over the past decade. Neither have I felt comfortable about the many groups all wanting the state to give them money for undertaking tasks such as caring for a relative or grandchild.

    Will I return to Labour? Probably but this depends on who wins the leadership election. I am hoping for a David Miliband victory. What has changed is that I am no longer tribal and I wonder if most political parties will see their core vote diminished now and the years to come. Having not voted for the party once to register my disapproval, it will not be so difficult the second time aound.

  3. AmberStar says:

    Andy Burnham seems to be the only candidate speaking with an understanding of the average working class person and their concerns on this issue…

    ……And on many other issues. He seems to be the candidate who speaks to & for ordinary, aspirational working class people. It’s a shame he is not being given as much coverage as the Miliband brothers. 😎

  4. epictrader says:

    An Interesting article. It’s always refreshing to read traditional Labour voters thoughts on what may have gone wrong with the party.   Political experts and politicians are often perilously wrong with their own analysis.

    I believe the party was unelectable prior to John Smith becoming leader. We were not trusted by the electorate who saw Labour as a party of extreme left wing nutters who could not be trusted with the crown jewels.

    Following good ground work by Kinnock and untimely death of Smith, the country elected the undoubtedly talented, intelligent and charismatic Blair. The party became popular under his direction and was reassured by his competent and robust Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

    Such a pity though that New Labour became synonymous with the Presidential style of Blair and Brown alone, rather than a Labour Party reinvigorated and renewed, working hard to support our core voters and influencing our nation in a changing, increasingly competitive world. 

    Labour introduced very many good policies in 13 years but surely it ultimately surrendered its soul to the ambitions of 2 men whose decisions and judgement where at times flawed over critical issues in the eyes of a  great many people in the country at large?  

    Surely those decisions ultimately inflicted fatal harm on Labour’s electability as well as the trust from the very electorate our party professed to serve?

  5. Hal says:

    Interesting article.

    However with regard to the perceptions of immigration, nothing is going to change. Migration from to and from Europe is uncontrolled and none of the major parties are planning to change this, or could, short of leaving the EU. Changing the immigration rules from outside the EU can only be tinkering at the margins; it will do little to change the number of “foreign” people currently living here, who will continue to be here regardless of the rules for new incomers.

    Presumably anyone upset by immigration during the Labour years will continue to be so under the current government. So it isn’t actually Labour’s problem any more.

Leave a Reply