Winning the workers
What should Labour’s vision for working-class voters be? Hazel Blears and Owen Jones enter into an exchange of views
You and I both care passionately about making sure working-class families get a fair deal and a chance to get on in life, but that must mean looking forward to a brighter future instead of getting nostalgic about the past.
The size of the working class is shrinking. Research conducted last year by BritainThinks for the Independent on Sunday found that only 24 per cent of people define themselves as working class compared to 67 per cent in the late 1980s, whereas 71 per cent of people now see themselves as middle class, demonstrating the importance of aspiration in Britain.
The same research found that working-class people used words like ‘worried’ and ‘fearful’ to describe their future. These are people suffering from squeezed incomes, falling living standards, a lack of opportunities for their children, and concern about security in retirement. Many women are balancing several part-time jobs with childcare and looking after elderly mums and dads, and are struggling to cope. Let down by this government, they want a Labour party that offers new opportunities and a vision filled with hope. Labour wins these voters at the next election by portraying a positive vision of a Labour Britain. This means a relentless focus on aspiration, job creation, improving living standards and education – giving working-class people a future worth voting for.
First, it is a step forward from Tony Blair that you acknowledge the working class exist: he claimed ‘we’re all middle-class now.’
Polls on those self-identifying as working class vary: an ICM poll in 2007 put it at over half, for example. And the BritainThinks study you quote has worrying findings, because many of those describing themselves as middle class had the same jobs as working-class self-identifiers, but felt the ‘working-class’ label had negative connotations.
Working-class Britain looks different from when Labour was founded. There has been a shift from the dock, factory, mine and steelworks to the supermarket, call centre and office. But these are people who still need a political voice.
Labour lost five million votes in 13 years in power, but the Tories only won one million. Middle-class professional support declined by five points, but it was 21 points among skilled workers. Unless Labour wins back working-class support by focusing on jobs, housing, declining wages, and tackling insecurities at the root of anti-immigrant and anti-welfare sentiments, we are doomed to the trauma of a Tory government.
I think you will find it was John Prescott who was the first to say ‘we’re all middle class now’ as part of the effort to put the old days of class-warfare behind us – a strategy that is still relevant today.
Low turnout in working-class communities is getting worse, and, as you know, I have been campaigning to try and get more working-class MPs. People like to vote for politicians who look and sound like them, and having a more representative Labour party is an important start.
And a national housebuilding programme – essential – must include both council and affordable private homes. While we must build new houses for those who need to rent, we must also be the party that helps people own their own homes by reducing deposits and freeing up mortgage lending.
It is funny that they only accuse you of class warfare when you stand up for the bottom 70 per cent, but when you stand up for the top one per cent they call you a moderate. But whether it is Blair or Prescott, airbrushing the working class out of existence made it so much harder for Labour to cater for the interests of people it exists to represent.
Turnout among working-class people declines with every election: universal suffrage – fought for with huge sacrifice – is unravelling by stealth. As Ed Miliband pointed out during the leadership election, there is a ‘crisis of working-class representation’.
There are five million people languishing on social housing waiting lists. They have an aspiration: to live with their families in a decent, affordable home. The number of families forced into the unregulated private rented sector has doubled in five years: many face extortionate rents. If we built council housing, we would bring down the housing benefit bill and waiting lists, and create jobs and stimulate the economy.
In opposition we need to show that we are a responsible government-in-waiting who will govern in the interests of the whole country. Aggressively pitting sections of society against one another leads to electoral defeat. Helping the working class does not have to hurt others.
Social housing is important, but we cannot fall into the trap of believing that all working-class people want to live in council housing – many aspire to owning their own home. Labour’s next manifesto must harness our culture of aspiration and encourage real social mobility.
As a working-class woman from Salford it was tough for me to get a start as a lawyer in a traditionally middle-class profession. We must break down the barriers to the professions so that the next generation of judges, doctors and journalists includes people from working-class backgrounds. That is part of the reason why I am campaigning against the use of unpaid internships which have a negative impact on social mobility.
This means a relentless focus on our education system and routes into employment to ensure that working-class people get the opportunities that they deserve.
Labour should seek to govern on behalf of working people – the vast majority of society. It is impossible to redistribute wealth and power to working people without challenging those at the top who possess so much of both. It means cracking down on tax avoidance by billionaires such as Philip Green. It means taxing the wealthy more: polls showed even most Tory voters supported the 50p tax. It means taking on bankers who helped plunge the world into economic catastrophe and media barons who subvert our democracy.
You suggest this is the road to electoral defeat, but the opinion polls do not bear that out. All of the above is hugely popular with the public.
As I have said, five million people languishing on social housing lists clearly do aspire to decent, affordable housing. Increasingly, the alternative to council housing for millions is unaccountable, rip-off private landlords.
I agree unpaid internships are a scandal, turning whole professions into middle-class closed shops. They must be abolished and employers who use them pursued in the courts for violating the National Minimum Wage Act.
Labour at our best governs for everyone – that is what we mean by ‘One Nation’. A party with a positive vision for the future, full of hope for families across Britain is a party that will win.
We need good businesses to make our economy grow. There is a real danger that anti-business sentiment hits those at the bottom hardest. For example, Barclays employs 150,000 people worldwide, the overwhelming majority of whom knew nothing about LIBOR manipulation. I think it more appropriate to punish those directly responsible, not the entire business and by proxy the lower-paid staff.
That, of course, is not to say that businesses should not pay their taxes and follow the law – of course they should. What we need to do is develop a culture of responsible capitalism so that businesses are focused on sustainable growth and profit. This means high-quality jobs, training and development, and new models of ownership to empower employees – measures that will give working-class people greater power to shape their own future and provide a real social mobility revolution.
But Britain is far from One Nation. We remain one of the most unequal nations in the western world, despite 13 years of Labour government. If you genuinely want One Nation, then you must surely support radical policies to redistribute wealth and power, finally overcoming these ever-growing divisions.
What is hitting people hard is not ‘anti-business sentiment’, but a crisis of capitalism that working people are being made to pay for. The average Briton faces the biggest sustained squeeze in living standards since the 1920s. The Resolution Foundation projects the bottom 10 per cent will be 15 per cent poorer by 2020. We are in an even more protracted economic crisis than the Great Depression.
And this is what I think is the problem with your approach. It is stuck in the High Blairism of the mid-noughties, before Lehman Brothers came crashing down, changing the world forever. Radical times need radical politics. Both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher were radical politicians who realised crisis was an opportunity, created a new political consensus, and transformed Britain. The next Labour government must do the same.
Hazel Blears MP is a former secretary of state for communities and local government. Owen Jones is the author of Chavs: The demonisation of the working class
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