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