• Josie Channer

Working Class representation: Worth Not Birth

With 22% of councillors and only 4% of MPs coming from a skilled or unskilled background compared to the 57% of us that consider ourselves to be working class (1), the lack of representation in government is a reflection of the lack of social mobility in our society. The Local Government Association (LGA) Labour Group is now looking at ways of how to improve representation by encouraging councillor candidates to come forward from wider range of social-economic backgrounds.

After successfully defeating the BNP in May I was elected as a Labour councillor in Barking & Dagenham. As former Prison Officer from a working class background during the campaign I went door to door listening to frustrated and disillusioned working class families questioning whether The Labour Party were in touch with our values and aspirations. The BNP had hoped to capitalise on the void but in May the community, despite their concerns, sent a clear message rejecting the BNP who lost all their council seats. Now that we have won will the voice of the working class once again being forgotten by the mainstream political parties?

It is not the failure of “state multiculturalism” as Cameron suggests that has lead to far right extremism, but a failure to give a voice through mainstream political parties. Instead we have Parliament that is dominated by a narrow elite that is setting policy for a complex and diverse British society. We need to push open the doors of council chambers and Westminster to working class candidates and give us an opportunity to represent and speak for ourselves.

Labours passive social housing policy and a poorly communicated massage on immigration during its years in government; and now socially divisive cuts from the Coalition Government such as the Education Maintenance Allowance that will affect 67% of young people in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, is result of the lack of socio – economic diversity among our elected representatives both at local and national level. As the gap between the law makers and their subjects becomes wider the further we set back the goal of social equality in our society.

Pitifully slow improvements has been made by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with regards to race and gender representation in their own parties, I therefore doubt that class is going to a priority for a while. The Labour Party is taking the lead on increasing representation by taking action to ensure that women and Black and Asian groups are represented at all levels within the party. However as a black woman it is not gender or race, but a glass ceiling of class that must now be broken for to continue to move forward.

The LGA Labour group is supporting me with my campaign starting with a debate at the Labour LGA Spring Conference on the 5th March. Discussions are taking place to consider how Labour might work with the Unison’s and other organisations to deliver training and increase awareness. But with Trade Union Membership following political parties will need work harder and be more imaginative if they are to succeed in engaging with working class communities

There is a pool of experiences, talent and skills, that it is vital we draw on to shape our country’s future. I believe that the selection process will need to be reviewed to ensure that Local Parties consider candidates from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds. We also need to address the barriers that prevent candidates from standing like negative stereotyping. Laughing at the thought a close friend of mine Viva Abrams, 37, a registration support officer on an apprentice scheme, bluntly pointed out that “they don’t want to see any working class MPs! working class people don’t know how to behave!! Do you think any of them middle class MPs would beat-up a member of the public in the middle of an election campaign!!” She was referring the John Prescots punching incident in 1997. My friend had touched on some of the negative perceptions fuelled by the right wing press that working class people themselves have internalised. At best football players or ditsy reality T.V stars are working class heroes, at worst we are state dependent, crude, and inept. There are also financial barriers; the process to become an MP can mean that a prospective candidate has to stand for a number of seats before becoming successful and needs to invest was can often run into £1000’s of pounds into a campaign they are unsure to win, no wonder working class hopefuls are deterred from standing.

Starting the discussion and acknowledging that we have a problem is the first steps in what will hopefully contribute to progress. We want our council chambers and Parliament to be a reflection of the divers’ society we have and the one that we would hope build.

By Councillor Josephine Channer 03/02/2011