Miliband turns to class in an effort to get Labour working again

Fri, Oct 5, 2012, 01:00

LONDON LETTER:Britain’s Labour Party is reaching out to the working-class vote that has drifted away from it

CLASS, IT is said, is the one true British obsession, particularly for those who place themselves on the higher rungs. Accents and school or university allegiances can pigeonhole people within minutes in ways bizarre to outsiders, even those coming from societies in which inequalities are far from unusual.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, with no jacket or tie, stood on a stage in Manchester this week during his party’s conference and talked of the need to change the make-up of Labour’s parliamentary candidates, with more plumbers and builders included alongside the Oxbridge-educated ranks that have come to dominate.

And well he might, because the self-declared party of the working class has come to be represented by almost anyone other than those from that class.

In 1998, MPs from manual working backgrounds comprised just 13 per cent of the party’s members in the House of Commons. Today they make up just 9 per cent.

That decline is a consequence not only of the deindustrialisation of Britain but also of the professionalisation of politics. In 1951, when Labour secured its highest number of votes in any general election, 37 per cent of its parliamentary party came from working-class backgrounds. Fifteen years later, that had fallen to 30 per cent.

In the past, an aspiring Labour candidate developed ties with unions in his or her constituency to win a nomination on the back of union influence upon the local Labour organisation. Depending on the constituency, a lifetime career in the Commons could be assured.

The attractions of that route have palled over the years. Instead, the ambitious go to Oxford or Cambridge, spend a few years working as a special adviser – known in Westminster as “spads” – before embarking on life in the Commons. One-quarter of all MPs elected in 2010 had previously been spads, up from 3 per cent in 1979.

The route to political office has narrowed both the life experience and interests of MPs. As one Labour delegate at the party conference pondered over coffee: “Does anybody think that there would be such a problem with elderly care if we had more MPs who had had to spend years taking care of elderly parents without getting enough help?”

Half of the people who sat around Labour prime minister Clement Attlee’s cabinet table after 1945 – in a government that created the National Health Service, Britain’s most-loved institution – described themselves as working class, and so would have been familiar with being unable to pay for doctors.

Some months ago, Labour MP Jon Trickett was detailed by Miliband to investigate ways of freshening the pool, though the pressure from unions – expressed at the conference by a series of union leaders – was probably just as significant, if not more so.

Some of the pledges to do more may previously have been just rhetoric, but now, following an initially little-noticed rule change proposed by Labour’s national executive committee and accepted overwhelmingly by delegates, it is official Labour policy to take social class into account when selecting candidates.

“The party will take action in all selections to encourage a greater level of representation and participation of groups of people in our society who are currently under-represented in our democratic institutions. In particular, the party will seek to select more candidates who reflect the full diversity of our society in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and disability, and to increase working-class representation,” the rule says.

The inclusion of the phrase “working-class representation” was pushed through at the NEC debate by Ken Livingstone, who may no longer be mayor of London but who clearly has no intention of allowing himself to be pushed into the background in the party.

The arrival in Westminster of hoary sons of toil may not be that easy to achieve, however, partly because the working class has shrunk with the decline of traditional industries but also because of social aspirations. In 1986, as Labour’s Hazel Blears has pointed out, 28 per cent of British people described themselves as middle class. In 2005, 40 per cent did.

The decision to make background a qualifying factor will be welcomed by many constituency organisations, who are often put under pressure by headquarters to find a home for a talented spad. Party rules are just one of the barriers to be cleared by candidates, however.

Some bursaries exist in Labour to help candidates from minority backgrounds, though the sums involved do little to fill the income gaps faced by most as they spend week after week getting to know their constituencies and the people who will decide their fare.

If properly done, the selection of a greater number of working- class candidates offers Labour hope for electoral gains, renewing its appeal to a demographic from which it and other parties have drifted in recent decades. Two years ago, a BBC poll indicated that two-thirds of white working- class people felt under- represented in the House of Commons or ignored by it.

Significantly, perhaps, Labour’s share of that vote – classified as DE by demographers – fell at the last election by one-third to 40 per cent.

As Labour MPs will privately attest, however, that had as much to do with anger about eastern European immigration and Labour’s failure to deal with it as it did with the accent of red-rosetted Labour candidates.