The people’s party has been disconnected
This article is from the February issue of Total Politics
The Labour Party is too elitist. Its leadership is drawn from a narrow clique of Oxbridge graduates and former special advisers. It has lost touch with its working-class base.
We know all this because a parade of party luminaries including Ed Balls, Chuka Umunna, Glenys Kinnock, Alan Johnson, Ken Livingstone, Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman have all signed up in support of the recently launched ‘Labour Diversity Fund’, and its attempt to open Labour’s candidate base to “talented individuals from under-represented groups”.
“One of the crucial problems we have as a party is that we have brought our leadership in from much too narrow a group,” Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill warned last month. “Basically Oxbridge graduates, in particular economics graduates, politics graduates, social scientists and lawyers.”
Not enough spit and sawdust; too much silver spoon and old school tie.
These bouts of class-based introspection aren’t new. Former Till Death Us Do Part writer Johnny Speight used to recount one story of canvassing for Labour in the east end in the early 1980s. Knocking on the door of a ground floor council flat he was met with a cold stare and a curt instruction: “Get off my land.” His party has been struggling, and failing, to come to terms with Margaret Thatcher’s appropriation of large swathes of its blue-collar support ever since.
In truth, that estrangement has a slightly more complex history. In the 1980s, Thatcher grabbed hold of Labour’s working class vote – some would say by the throat. In the 1990s, Tony Blair walked away from it.
“Our base has nowhere to go,” one Downing Street adviser told me mid-way through Blair’s first term. Actually, they did, but it took them the best part of a decade to get there. And the Labour Party has still not reached a consensus on how to get them back.
Part of the problem is that Labour is trying to reconnect with a social demographic that only exists conceptually. The definition ‘working class’ is now meaningless in political terms. Society is simply too diverse. A black nurse from Toxteth and a white van man from Dagenham would both neatly fit the description. But their world views, and the voting patterns that arise from them, are likely to be markedly different. Age, gender and race are all factors of equal, or greater, significance than class. And that’s before you even get into the diversity prevalent within these social subcategories.
On one level Labour already knows this. The Mosaic demographic database used by the party for campaigning contains 155 ‘person types’ that are aggregated into 67 household types. The days of saying, ‘If we get the C2s the election’s in the bag’ are over. Britain’s political parties now have to find strategies for targeting ‘worn-out workers’, ‘brownfield pioneers’ and ‘stressed borrowers’.
This is not to say that there aren’t large swathes of the electorate that respond to common themes. There are. But this is where Labour runs into another problem. In many key areas, the party’s direction of political travel is taking it away from, not towards, its traditional base.
Partly this is as a result of Ed Miliband’s strategy of attempting to offer a ride to disaffected Liberal Democrats, while simultaneously tossing the baggage of Blairism out the back window. But it is also because, while Labour loves paying homage to the working class, it frequently runs scared when faced with the ‘small c’ conservatism prevalent within many working-class communities. On Europe, crime, welfare reform, the economy and immigration, Labour’s embrace of its working base has all too often turned into a curt nod and a fumbled attempt to change the conversation to cuts in manufacturing or the health service.
When Gillian Duffy finally brought the curtain down on Gordon Brown’s premiership it was attributed to Brown’s own impersonality and lack of empathy. It wasn’t.
It was the moment Labour and the working classes simultaneously removed the rose-tinted spectacles and saw one another for what they were, not what they once dreamed they could be. And in that instant both recognised the people’s party was no longer the party of the people.
The Labour Party understands that now. But knowledge of the problem does not, of itself, provide the solution.
Labour acknowledges the lack of diversity on its frontbench. But Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper will not be resigning just to demonstrate a commitment to working-class solidarity. It knows it needs to recapture its working base. But it also knows it cannot win with that base alone. And there are many in the party who would view a tough stance on immigration, welfare and crime as a betrayal, not reclamation, of Labour’s heritage.
Labour is desperate to again be the people’s party. But at the moment, it doesn’t really know how.
Dan Hodges is a Labour commentator