Thursday, 25 September 2014

Labour has to liberate the working classes from the dead hand of the state UPDATE

Returning from Conference I'd like to thank LabourList for allowing me to share a platform to discuss the issue of Working Class representation. It caused some commentary for my comments on Union selections but this was a misrepresentation of the wider points I made.

Whilst unions have their chosen candidates, often not drawn from the membership but from their staff, there should be huge recognition for the recent mentoring programme they have been involved in helping to build up the confidence and abilities of ordinary people who may well have not climbed over the barriers to selection.

A few weeks ago I wrote this article on the importance of working class political representation.
Labour List article

So much has been written about Labour’s problem in reaching out to working class voters and crucially in working class areas. In particular, UKIP’s appeal to parts of this voter segment which has stimulated significant comment.

Is this a new problem for Labour or one that has existed for a long time?

A couple of years ago, Owen Jones made a stark point when he highlighted the fact that 50% of C2 voters (lower working class people) voted Labour in 1997, whilst just 29% of C2 voters voted Labour in 2010. In the same time period, Labour’s vote share amongst DE’s (temporary or long-term unemployed, disabled, very low income) fell by 19% to just 40%.

Did the Blair government and New Labour get it wrong calculating they could always ‘bank’ working class votes whilst appealing more to the right? It seems so. As Ed Miliband put during the Labour leadership election: “if we had enjoyed a 1997 result in 2010 just among DEs, then on a uniform swing we would have won at least 40 more seats and would still be the largest party in parliament.” From this, he concluded, Labour faced “a crisis of working-class representation”.

Recent research conducted by Policy Exchange found that in 1979, almost 40% of Labour MPs had done manual or clerical work but by 2010 general election, this had plummeted to 9%. Labour has not only lost many low income/working class voters who feel Labour doesn’t speak for them but their view is that Labour no longer looks like them or understands them.

This correlation will have an impact on Labour's chances in the general election.

The Fabians recently produced research which indicates decline in support for Labour among ‘blue-collar working groups’. The report signals a danger for Labour because “in many constituencies which Labour is targeting in 2015 almost a half of all households are comprised of these groups.”

The North West is one of these key areas as is West and East Midlands, and Yorkshire. In my constituency Hyndburn, 35% of people voted UKIP in the Euro elections. This came as no surprise as the make up of the constituency reflects the findings of the Fabian report. As do many of the seats in Lancashire and elsewhere that Labour need to win to secure a majority next May.

And at least three of those groups mentioned in the Fabian report, if not all five, are a significant subset of the C2 and DE group and predominantly live in the poorer geographical areas where support has fallen away from Labour and in many cases, politics altogether.

The fall off in support amongst C2 and DE groups in Haslingden and Hyndburn, which was target seat 328 (326 for a majority) for the Tories at the 2010 General Election, can be traced back to 1997 and a failure to understand and make an offer to these groups. In the 1994-1996 local elections Labour polled roughly 12,000-14,000 votes but in the next round of elections between 1998-2000 support was dramatically reduced to around 7,000-8,000. A net loss of 5,000 voters plus who saw no reason at all to vote Labour once the Tories had been removed from Government.

For many of those C2 and DE voters who stopped voting Labour (and live in poorer areas), the party’s offer of social mobility on the basis of aspiration neither served their economic or social interests.

A view shared by Jon Cruddas who “believes New Labour inadvertently helped to create this crisis by building its appeal on aspiration. Labour was about how much you can earn and own.” There was too much focus on helping people from the bottom of the hill to the top, and too little on the fabric of life in left behind neighbourhoods that once solidly voted Labour. Gordon Brown pinpointed recently the insecurity that people feel “at the economic and social dislocation wrought by de‑industrialisation”.

Many of these ‘left behind’ communities believe life was better for them in previous decades. In a recent  poll for Channel 4 News, YouGov found that four-in-five UKIP voters believe the UK was a better place to raise children 20-30 years ago.

For those aspirational families that could afford to do so, the social and economic offer from Labour has been an opportunity to leave behind their old declining neighbourhood for a better life in a better area (often a new build estate). Properties in these areas often handed to a queue of landlords (including on council estates) waiting to acquire the vacant property and profiting from the huge reductions there have been in access to decent low cost social housing. Without any political compassion, these areas have become sink areas or are fighting a losing battle to keep their community/neighbourhood a place to proud of.

In these neighbourhoods people see the answer to a better future no longer through collective action but instead through individual wealth - they have absorbed the neo-liberal message doled out over 30 years. The state is no longer seen as able or even willing to help people in these areas; ‘no-one is on our side’. It is seen as uncaring and with it ferments a dismissive view of the political class at all levels.

Jon Cruddas says that “rather than applauding a sense of community and belonging and family. We were all building hedge funds of our own bricks and mortar. But what happens when the music stops?”. Cruddas also rejects new Labour’s mea culpa that Labour voters had nowhere to go but New Labour; “traditional Labour voters had plenty of places to go – the Lib Dems, not voting at all, or switching to support the far right in the form of the British National Party.”

People at a neighbourhood level feel powerless to deal with these local issues that immediately concern them. Many of them like Steve who I met I conference said they were happy to live in at the 'bottom of the hill'. Their aspirations weren't material but social. Their community, their neighbours, their family, their neighbourhood. Cruddas is therefore right to pursue the concept of the “common good” an he’s also right when he says “we need radical transformational change in the way Britain governs itself.”

In short, Labour has to rise to the need for a new collective neighbourhood politic that starts from the bottom. It needs to identify community leaders and back them. Ultimately, it needs to focus more keenly on the streets people live on, in the places where life is more difficult.

Labour has to empower people within their neighbourhood, giving them significant (if not in some cases absolute) authority over many aspects of their life. And we have to do so in a way and on a scale which New Labour or the Tories couldn’t conceive. If we make such a dramatic shift we will begin to understand people’s concerns, to liberate them from the dead hand of the state and give them the opportunity to build a better future for themselves, and, in doing so, everyone else.

Graham Jones is the Labour MP For Hyndburn