During the mid-1980s I was a member of the UK Labour Party. One of the most memorable branch meetings I went to – OK there isn’t a lot of competition – was after I had finished an early shift on the London Underground where I worked as a signalman at the time. I made my way back from London to my home town outside the capital and went straight to the meeting still in my work uniform. I still remember the look when other members of the branch saw me and another friend who also worked on the railways enter the room. I should explain, like many Labour Party branches mine was filled with teachers and other middle class occupations, including fairly senior executives of state-owned companies. Their collective reaction wasn’t contempt, and I wouldn’t want to claim that. Rather, it betrayed a sense that people in uniform didn’t quite fit. What gave me the confidence to stay in that room was a working-class pride instilled in me in large part by the politics and culture of my workplace, which taught me not to be ashamed of my blue collar.
I have been reminded of this incident over the last couple of weeks as class in the Labour Party and more widely in British politics has come to the surface. The most recent manifestation is over the increasingly troubled relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour Party under its leader Ed Miliband. After the electoral defeat of 2010, it was widely understood Miliband’s success was largely due to the support of the trade union vote rather than the other blocks within the Party’s Electoral College – MPs and ordinary members. The conservative media instantly labelled Miliband ‘Red Ed’ and suggested that he was now a creature of the union movement. While this mood music has played out over the last three years, the volume has recently increased due to the selection process for a safe Labour seat of Falkirk in Scotland. Local party members have alleged that the Unite union, one of the biggest unions in the UK and one of the largest donors to the Labour Party, has been attempting to fix the election by packing out the membership of the local party with union members. I will spare readers the gruesome details of the battle, but essentially Miliband called foul and asked the local police to investigate the process.
The rights and wrongs of Falkirk are complex, but the case has shone a spotlight on the class demographics of the Labour Party. Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, has sought to portray his organization’s actions as a strategy for ensuring that a working-class candidate is selected rather than a middle class political wonk, what he would see as the equivalent of a Washington insider. However, as the sitting MP for the constituency, Eric Joyce, recently wrote in the Guardian newspaper, while McCluskey has suggested that ‘middle class’ people like “shouldn’t be parachuted in,” his union’s candidate worked in an MP’s office. Joyce also pointed out that McCluskey earns a middle-class salary of £122,000.
No doubt, shifts in the economy and especially the deindustrialization of many of the traditional areas of Labour support have wrought inevitable changes in the make-up of the Parliamentary Labour Party. While Labour now has more female MPs and ethnic minority representation, however, the base of candidates from the working class has eroded. In the last Labour Government (1997-2010), three of the most high profile cabinet members claimed working-class origins – Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary), John Prescott (Deputy Prime Minster) and Alan Johnson (Home Secretary). And while Straw cut his teeth in student politics, Prescott and Johnson emerged through workplace unionism. Prescott was a seaman and worked as a waiter on board ships. In Parliament, he was often ridiculed for his working-class accent, with Tory MPs from more elite backgrounds shouting requests for cocktails during his speeches in the House of Commons. Alan Johnson has just written a well-received memoir of his early life growing up poor in London in a single parent family. But these high profile Labour Cabinet members from working class backgrounds are part of an aging and disappearing cohort – Prescott is 75, Straw 67, and Johnson 63 – nearing or at the end of their active political life. The ladder that enabled them to enter national politics is either no longer there or much diminished. The typical Labour MP now is far more likely to come to frontline politics through higher education, often with a spell as a political intern. Over time, working-class communities have fewer politically active role models as class politics in the workplace and neighborhoods have been hollowed out. Politics has become something done to working-class people rather than something they or their peers actively engage in.
What difference does it make who represents voters in Parliament? A working-class perspective on life roots one in daily concerns, and it makes elected representatives think twice before they make assumptions about what ordinary people think and do. I wrote in a previous blog about the new group Blue Collar Conservatism, and recently another group called Renewal launched. Its leader recently suggested that if the Tories are to win in 2015 they need to be nothing less than “the new workers’ party,” with policies appealing to black and ethnic minority voters as well as trade unions and public sector workers. Many of the people around these Conservative groups are unafraid to self-identify as working class.
It was thirty years ago this summer that I left school, began work on the railway, and joined both the union and the Labour Party. It would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if a sixteen year old turned up at a local Labour branch today — perhaps not in an ill-fitting grey railway worker’s uniform but in one from a shop or a fast-food outlet. I hope they would be welcomed. But given the lack of the working-class pride and working-class political role models that drew me into the Labour Party, I wonder whether a young person today would even bother to show up.