Labour: Reconnecting with its core vote

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From both the left and right of the party there have been calls to look at how it can rebuild its relationship with those voters it considers its most reliable supporters. The first problem is identify who this ‘core vote’ consists of. The over-simplification is it’s the white working class, but a little thought will show that it is far more than this.

The seats the party expects to win every time usually have a large urban working class majority. Immigrants through first and second generations are likely to be living in these same areas and also see Labour as their best representative in parliament. By the third generation we begin to lose this locked-in vote as wealth moves them up the social ladder and they migrate to more suburban constituencies. We can see this over the last hundred years or so with Irish, Jewish, Caribbean and Indian immigration, although some move faster than others.

Gordon Brown’s meeting with Mrs. Duffy in Rochdale highlighted the gap that has appeared between the party and that section of the supporters we call the core vote. Even more dramatic was the reaction of some in the Party to the August rioting and looting by urban youth. Both the right, like those in ‘Blue Labour’, and the left have looked at this broken relationship, but miss the real cause.

Of course it would be very easy for me to lay the problem at Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s doors, and I do think they should take much of the blame, but it really started long before. In fact it started with our most successful Labour government of 1945. We can even point at one man who was one of the party’s cleverest and most successful tacticians, that’s Herbert Morrison. To me the cause of this broken relationship was his ‘gentrification’ of the Labour Party.

Now an argument can be made that the core vote no longer exists, that through the de-industrialization of the Thatcher years we no longer have the concentration of working class communities, after all we can look at union membership to measure this. Yet to go along with this argument we have to accept Thatcher’s redefinition of the British class system.

With the new definition a move from working class to lower middle class just necessitates buying a house or getting a monthly salary for working in an office. At the other end, being made unemployed and having to take benefits would move you from the working class to an underclass. For the first idea I suspect the move of millions into this expanded lower middle class was just an attempt at divide and rule by Tory tacticians. The upwardly mobile were still working for a living and had just acquired more commitments or assets, nothing more. With the second idea I think Labour activists from the 1930s would be surprised to hear that unemployment moves you from the working class into a lumpen proletariat group.

Back to Mrs. Duffy and urban youth rioting. Gordon Brown couldn’t believe that Mrs. Duffy could be a strong Labour supporter when she was moaning about Poles taking jobs. Brown could find no identification with what she was saying, hence his ‘bigoted woman’ complaint. Recently we had some of our young London party intellectuals and the middle class feeling threatened by rampaging kids, some even being relieved of bicycles and money by these, OK rather big, kids. They thought they knew London, they lived in a safe area, and they were part of London’s culture.

So what do Herbert Morrison and the gentrification of the Labour Party have to do with this? Just as urban areas can be gentrified so can political parties. When I was young, Limehouse in London was just beginning to move upmarket. It had been an old East End Labour stronghold of Jewish costermongers and Irish dockers. The newly wealthy had found it was easy commuting distance to the City and Westminster and you could even find a small terraced house with a river view. That David Owen had his London ‘cottage’ there just brings together what had happened in both the district and in the Labour Party.

Morrison was a leading Labour MP after the 1935 election, even challenging the middle class Attlee for the party leadership. Attlee, unlike Morrison, had managed to retain his seat after the disastrous 1931 election and gain the leadership when there were only fifty or so Labour MPs left. (Just for the London historians, Attlee represented Limehouse as an MP while the working class Morrison was born in Lambeth, just across the river.) Morrison felt let down by the inability of other working class MPs to understand the rules of parliamentary debating. In his view the Tories and Liberals had too much advantage inside the House of Commons because of their education.

Morrison himself was an extremely clever man having been a local politician since 1919, having been a mayor and leading the party to winning control of the old London County Council. His answer was to recruit more higher educated candidates for the 1945 election. In this he was helped by the growth of working and middle class kids getting into grammar schools and universities in the late thirties and war years and the increased number of working and middle class entering the officer class during the war.

With the Parliamentary Labour Party of 1945 we see a major change in its membership makeup from previous elections. There had always been a significant university educated element in the Labour Party, one just has to look at Attlee, but this had been secondary to working class, often union, members. Even in the 1945 entry you had people like Ernie Bevin on the right and Nye Bevan on the left. Later Morrison was to acknowledge the success of his initiative in increasing the education level of Labour MPs ended up biting him in the back when the PLP elected Hugh Gaitskell, a university educated public schoolboy, rather than himself after the retirement of Attlee.

Since the Morrison initiative we have seen the PLP go from having many working class non-university members to the extreme opposite. Now we can almost count those who have come through the union route on one or two hands. John Prescott and Alan Johnson have been the exceptions rather than rule. That leaves us with the problem of the Labour leadership finding it hard to relate to what is their core vote. Singing a mantra that it’s a few thousand middle class voters in a hundred swing seats that make the difference between winning and losing an election, they no longer can rely on the core vote to automatically vote for them. In the north we saw this particularly with the previous popularity of the Liberals in some industrial towns.

Gordon Brown couldn’t identify with Mrs. Duffy because he had never lived in the environment that she lived in. The young, Oxbridge to SPAD, Labour Party members in London couldn’t believe that the kids weren’t like them and on top of that didn’t like them much either. To be scared by some these kids may have been a surprise to them, but many of the Labour’s core vote live with that fear every day of their lives. A kid born on a sink estate in London knows that every day he could be the victim, which is why many see the gangs as being their only protection. Yes some of the university, even Oxbridge, educated Labour MPs will tell you they came from traditional working class backgrounds, but if they were honest they will tell you they rarely still have friends from those who didn’t go into higher education.

This is the problem. The Party finds it very hard to have something in common with what should be their core vote. It’s no good looking at the Milibands, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman. They were neither brought up the same way as this core, nor built any real relationships with them through their working lives. The Party leadership and the MPs are far too middle class to be recognized as part of the class they are trying to represent. This applies almost as much to left of the party as it does the right.

So what’s the answer? Well not what ‘Blue Labour’ says for sure. Their answer is to appeal to the most conservative ideas in the working class by tailoring policies around those ideas. Labour’s history is of being in front of the working class and educating them with its ideas. Didn’t Keir Hardie have socialist Sunday schools in Scotland? The left doesn’t really have an answer either because they too are from the same social group as the leadership.

I feel the Party has to go back to its roots in finding the next generation of leaders and MPs. The career path of university to NGO/think tank/SPAD to parliamentary candidate should be the exception and not the rule. The parachuting of candidates into safe seats, whose fame is from being on TV, or being a well known academic, or even having crossed the floor of the House has to stop. We need to localize and find the community leaders in the districts of our core vote. We shouldn’t worry that much whether they fit better with the right or left of the Party as long as they are in general agreement with the aims of the Party. Let some of our more middle and upper class members fight those seats which have a majority of those classes in them. That will help us with those pesky swing seats.

If we could get the above as Labour policy there are some members who will be hurt quite badly. Those queuing up in London to be MPs’ bag carriers as the first step in their careers are going to have to join the non-Westminster world for a while. Go live in some of those core vote districts and become a community leader if you want a safe seat. Much as Militant made such a mess of it, we do still need to have a proper method of MP selection and reselection. Being an MP must never been seen as having a job for life.

  • sea55red

    Yes – how true!
    The perception of many voters and/or non voters, is that politicians are just greedy, self-serving parasites – they are ‘all the same’. However, I think it would be relatively straightforward to create some clear distance between the current coalition and the Labour Party.Ed has made a start but I would like to see more passion and more anger! This pitiful shower running the country make me really angry – let’s see some of that from the leadership!
    How to tackle the problem of the lack of working class MPs is a bit more complex but I believe that it is at the root of the alienation of huge swathes of the electorate. It explains, to some extent, the demise of the maverick MP – a bit off the wall, outspoken, often off-message- but colourful, interesting and above all, relevant. So come on Labour Party. You need to take some risks!

    • LesAbbey

      In corporate life I’ve noticed a tendency for mediocre managers to promote mediocre people. It’s almost like a cloning. I wonder if this happened in the Labour Party.

      • swatantra

        Nothing wrong with mediocrity; we can’t all be high fliers. Its mediocrity that keeps the wheels of corporations turning.
        But sea55red has a point. Where are our TU sponsored MPs and are they really the sons of toil or just union aparaticks? Where are our MPs like Bessie Braddock and Manny Shinwell?

  • swatantra

    Great article Les.

    • LesAbbey

      And good to see you again Swatantra.

  • Barry

    Oh at last! Thanks for this Les. I once did an audit of one of the Brown Cabinets (to prove a point) and was depressed to discover that, Johnson apart, non had had a job that the Labour core could recognise or relate to. Today, Blue Labour seem to be heading down the Fred Kite route while the Left just waffle.

    • LesAbbey

      I once called a Blair cabinet a golf club cabinet because of how well its members would fit in at the clubhouse bar.

      • swatantra

        Think I’ll start a new blog called ‘Left Behnd’.

        • treborc

          Most of us do feel left behind, I see Balls has again apologized for labour Banking woes, and so has Brown, only Brown blamed the Americans as well.

  • Anonymous

    Labour’s core vote, the middle Class it would seem, should they return to the working class, the poor the sick the disabled, boy they have to build some bridges to get me to vote for them.

    I was saying to my wife the way it’s going Scotland’s the place to live, they have at least a real socialist party.

    I do not think you can turn the tap on and off getting people to trust you, labour was way to friendly with the rich middle class and business

    nice to see the site back up

    • LesAbbey

      And good to see you back too;-)

      • treborc

        see how long before I get a suspension or banned.

        • LesAbbey

          I don’t think Alex ever banned us in the past. I can never find that much to disagree about with you anyway except I can’t vote Plaid;-)

          Got a Welsh son-in-law this year though so maybe I will come and join you.

  • John Wiseman

    We do need to recoonect and we need to a move to the left, not to reduce union power

    • treborc

      Sadly Union power is being lost as people leave Labour the rise in membership is now dropping again like a stone, and actually Unions are not doing to well, and I suspect in some area if Unions do strike the people who will cross a picket line will be high.

  • Psmiddx

    Perhaps Milliband (And admittedly other parties) could remember, when it suits them to ‘banker-bash’ on bonuses, the MP’s expenses were and are still the biggest ‘benefits and bonuses’ scandal  there are ever or will be (Darling, Smith and Moran should be sacked – I don’t care about loopholes and the ‘rules’ – the ones they invented then tried to stop The Telegraph from exposing). I for one have a long memory and will not vote Tory or Labour ever again (Yes, I’ve voted for both in the past but never again). It’s UKIP for me. Yes, I know Farage was at it too but Labour imported all sorts of undesirables from other countries, the Tories still don’t want us to have a referendum on the EU, so I’m leaving mainstream politics for good

    • Swatantra

      Its a puzzle why anyone should want to vote UKIP which is nothing more than a little Englander xenophobic and bordering onto a racist Party. Unless it is a protest vote.  Even UKIP are on the Euro Gravy Trainand milking it foe what its worth and some of the MEPs  … makes you shudder to think the damage thet do.
      But there are other ways of protesting outside Politics outside Parliament, and many are opting for that, like Uncut etc. But they won’t bring abut change. Even a Party like Sinn Fein Realised that you have to work within the parameters of democracy to do that.
      The touble with MPs payis that its is not set at a realistic level and they’ve invented various tricks and dodges to make it reasonable. Give them a fair rate and cut out the excessive allowances.
      As for Di Abbott, the ‘some’ is always a presumption that has to be made, just like ”alledged’. Intelligent people should have known what she meant to say, without her having to spell it out letter by letter.

  • akademix

    And good to see you again Swatantra.