Working Class representation: The response to Worth Not Birth
After the first article I wrote some months ago calling for our local and national representatives to come from a wider range of social- economic backgrounds, the response I’ve had has been mixed. I became concerned about how we were perceived by working class voters after seeing off the BNP in Barking & Dagenham and asked why there was a lack of working class representation in Parliament. At the breakout session I di
d at the Local Government Labour group Spring Conference back in March the first question I was asked was “what’s your definition of working class”, the question has since been put to me a number of times.
I’ve found it strange that when talking about how we can get working class voters to keep voting Labour, such as in rec
ent discussions prompted by the ‘Blue Labour’ debate, we seem to know who we’re talking about; however, when discussing how to encourage more working class people to stand as elected representatives, puzzled faces asking for a definition appear.
My response that I believe it is subjective has been greeted with dissatisfaction. As education has become more accessible and property ownership has widened, you don’t need to be a millionaire to have bought your council house, but these days the “white van man” plumber occasionally can be a millionaire – but can acquiring these material gains alone determine class? I believe that class is much more about culture – what you do in your free time, how you speak and the language you use, with whom you associate, what you eat, etc. Because of these cultural differences the self-made “white van” man might not feel comfortable at Chequers. That’s why the traditional definition that you ‘will always be in the class into which you were born’ still rings true for me.
I think that it’s important that the diversity of cultures and today’s wide range of life experiences are reflected among our elected representatives. I said in the opening statement at the LG conference in Birmingham recently that as councillors we aim to represent our community as a whole regardless of our individual background, but what makes Labour different is the aim that we have to give the community the opportunity to represent themselves – to give women and black candidates that opportunity — not just to be spoken for, but to speak for themselves. However, it seems the idea that we live in a “classless society” has created some indifference to the cultural and material differences that exists between classes. It’s easy to ‘get it when looking at the fact that the majority of the Tory Cabinet went to Eton, although the fact that only 4% of MPs come from an ‘unskilled’ or ‘skilled’ work background is just as concerning.
The Blue Labour debate has been looking at our polices, in particular those around immigration and crime, asking how they connect with Blue Collar workers. As a former Prison Officer I can testify to the massive developments that the Labour Government made, not least the introduction of longer sentences for violent crimes. The problem wasn’t the policy, but how it was communicated. If we had people from a wider range of backgrounds, regardless of class, maybe our policies, message and how we communicated that message would naturally fall in line with what people are thinking — again regardless of class. With 29% of our parliament made up of former Special Advisers, many of whom have limited life experiences outside of professional politics, is there a new dominant political class emerging that will further narrow our perspective and hinder our ability to connect with voters?
We’re all concerned about crime and immigration. If we can cut out the pre-written political script and spin and bring a little bit of life experience back in, we won’t have to choose between Middle England and our Core Vote.
However losing our core vote to extreme parties, such as the BNP, Respect and the Christian Party, who all pray on working class communities that feel frustrated by labour, has to be tackled decisively in Labour’s favour if we are to prosper as a party.
I mentioned in my last article that I was starting a campaign; I have had a lot of messages offering support and people asking how they might help. There are two things that can be done locally: 1. encourage those in the party to stand as candidates and take steps to widen your membership. 2 ask why we settle for candidates from a familiar and similar background . This is an issue where we can make a difference at grassroots level and maybe we can change the makeup of our party, councils and our Parliament.