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Opinion ‘Without working people on our side, what does Labour even mean?’

IAN LAVERY, JON TRICKETT, LAURA SMITH are in no doubt that increasing working class representation within the party is now a must for Labour

THE Labour Party is facing one of the most difficult periods in its existence, and recent polling suggests we are not rising to the moment.

That the Conservatives hold up to a 14-point lead in some polls after the year we have just endured makes for genuinely frightening reading.

But Labour’s problems are not new. The result in the 2019 election was a result of long-term decline in Labour support from its working-class heartlands that dates back the latter half of the 20th century. 

The party’s decision to ignore the democratic wishes of those who voted Brexit was the catalyst for those who have long felt abandoned by the party to cut all ties, culminating in the collapse of most of the so-called “red wall.”

For some there is a tendency to shrug off our departure from the EU as done and dusted.

The same is for the 2019 result which is written off as an anomaly based on a poisonous mixture of Corbynism and a second referendum promise.

They hope to rebuild as though Brexit and its causes were a brief caveat in British politics now forgotten by those who voted for it.

But as mentioned above, there are far deeper issues at play that have led to Labour’s collapse than membership of the EU or Jeremy Corbyn.

What has long been simmering within the party is what is sometimes referred to as the “progressive dilemma.” This term was first coined way back in 1979, a testament to just how deeply rooted these problems have become. 

The Labour Party was always a coalition of blue-collar and white-collar workers, and rightly so.

However, an influx of university-educated middle-class activists began to change the demographic composition of the party, moving it away from its traditional roots in the trade union movement, and as a result the party began to detach itself from its working-class roots. 

These changes were embraced enthusiastically by New Labour. In a bid to rid themselves of their “Southern Discomfort” they embraced the individualism of the Thatcher era over the collectivist traditions of the party, to appeal to these middle-class voters, especially in southern seats.

They managed to assemble a huge coalition based on the assumption that working-class Labour voters had “nowhere else to go.”

In 1945 42 per cent of Labour MPs came from working-class backgrounds. Yet in 2017, a mere 1.5 per cent of Labour MPs were from manual work backgrounds.

A higher percentage of Labour MPs now attended university than Conservative MPs. The membership is also now disproportionally university educated, southern, and middle class.

Labour’s support in London is unwavering while simultaneously collapsing in the north of England. 

The progressive dilemma asks how Labour can find the balance between its new of middle-class voter base with its traditional working-class roots. So far it is failing to do so. 

Peter Mandelson’s infamous quip that the working-class voters have “nowhere else to go” no longer rings true (this is also incidentally the reason why bringing the likes of Mandelson back into the fold is disastrous).

Labour’s position on Brexit in 2019 was simply the final straw for a huge number of people in these communities who for decades have felt the Labour party slipping away from them. 2019 was therefore a long time coming, and hopefully the wake-up call we need to rebuild properly.

Regrettably, little progress appears to have been made, and it seems like many lessons have not been learnt. 

The recent publication of the Hearts and Minds pamphlet by the Fabian Society edited by John Healey MP contains a number of convincing proposals.

Developing a brand of progressive patriotism born out of socialist ideals of a shared purpose and solidarity is essential, and rebuilding around the concept of fair and full employment is the Labour way that may have been forgotten in recent decades.

These are an instance of interesting proposals outlined in the publication. 

Yet we fear the report understates the dire position the party finds itself in today. Playing the card of a right-wing “tough on crime” narrative leaves us playing the Tories at their own game.

Make no mistake, we are clear that the route back to power for the Labour Party must be through our heartland communities. 

This is not only because these areas have historically returned a large number of MPs needed to win majorities, but because our values emerged out of, and remain embedded within, these communities.

Recently a new group of seats have been identified as the “blue wall,” a scattering of suburban, socially liberal, Remain-leaning seats across the country where Labour have outperformed their national swing in recent elections. 

It has been suggested that Labour can claw back as many as 25 of these seats, which alongside winning back some marginals across the county could decimate Boris Johnson’s majority (his own seat being one of those making up the blue wall).

An optimistic thesis in its own right, even if it this was a plausible route back to power for Labour, it would fly in the face of everything the party stands for. 

Winning power back is obviously the goal of the party. But political parties have longstanding histories and traditions that form both the hearts and minds of the movements.

If Labour were to abandon the working communities from whom its values were born to win back power, it would be a Pyrrhic victory at best — a total betrayal of the party’s very soul at worst. 

Labour’s middle class is an important voter block, and their support is crucial to winning back power. But more must be done to swing the pendulum of influence within the party back towards those disenfranchised working-class communities out of which the Labour Party’s culture and values were forged. 

Essential to this is increasing working-class representation within the party. We in No Holding Back have already suggested removing barriers so carers, cleaners, factory workers and people from the gig economy and other low-paid industries can have their voices heard in the party and can more easily stand for elected office.

Alongside this should be a radical overhaul of the party structures, moving towards a regional federalised structure to increase participation and an increased role for individual “opted-in” trade unionists within our party. 

These changes are only the start, but an important start for the long rebuilding Labour has ahead if it wants to return to power as a truly socialist party standing up for the working class. 

Because, as we have written before, without working people on our side, what does “Labour” even mean?


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