Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Character, not class

Recent calls for more ‘working-class MPs’ are age-old code for ‘more leftwing trade unionists in parliament’

It is easy to assume that the Labour party was founded by horny-handed sons of toil, wiping the oil or coal-dust from their hands as they voted to establish a working-class party in parliament. This image of miners, dockers and mill-hands sending their representatives into citadels of privilege feeds a broader narrative that the proletarian purity of the party has been tainted by the presence of the soft-handed, comfortably-off middle classes. If only, the narrative runs, we had elected more working-class MPs, and fewer journalists, barristers and – urgh – special advisers, then socialism would have arrived some decades ago.

It fails to understand the nature of the trade unionists who founded the Labour party. They were mostly trade union officials: respectable men in suits, with their own homes, and a decent salary, who hitherto had voted Liberal. The socialist societies’ representatives present were drawn from the bohemian middle classes. A scattering among them – Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald – were genuinely working class, with experience of hunger and poverty. It is a myth that the Labour party was a ‘working-class party’, then or now.

This nonsense pops up in every Labour generation. Ours is no different. It was debated at the NEC meeting at conference this year, with a motion supported by Ken Livingstone and the trade unions to encourage more ‘working-class representation’. It is a perennial favourite among trade union general secretaries. It is oft-repeated in leftwing circles and ginger groups. The university-educated, home-counties lefties shuffle in their seats and look at their shoes during this part of the meeting. Ed Miliband has also paid lip-service to the idea, and put Jon Trickett in charge of sorting it out.

Of course, it would be wrong if the parliamentary Labour party was a monoculture, comprising only those who went to Oxford or Cambridge, and straight from college into jobs such as political lobbying, television or journalism. But luckily the parliamentary Labour party is not like that. There is a healthy mix of backgrounds. There are those, like Miliband or Hilary Benn, who have politics in their blood. There are plenty whose route into politics has been via Labour Students, working in Westminster, or as an adviser to ministers. It would be astonishing if that was not the case. Most political people catch the bug early in life, and choose a career path which matches their values and ambitions.

But there are also plenty of Labour MPs who have worked in the NHS, as teachers, for trade unions, as councillors, in the private sector, and, at least in the case of Dan Jarvis, in the armed forces. If there are fewer mining, shipbuilding or engineering MPs, that is because there are fewer miners, shipbuilders or engineers. Of the 27 current full members of the shadow cabinet, just four are former special advisers (Miliband, Benn, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham).

Labour has never been a purely working-class party. Clement Attlee, ranked by many as Labour’s greatest prime minister, was the product of respectable Putney, Haileybury and Sandhurst. Around his cabinet table Harold Wilson could call on former dons, presidents of the Oxford Union and army officers. There have been middle-class members of the Labour party since the day in 1900 when the teachers, clerks and Fabians pitched up to the Memorial Hall.
So if the call for ‘more working-class MPs’ is based on a myth, why do people make it? The answer lies in the character of those making the calls. For leftwing trade union general secretaries, ‘more working-class MPs’ actually means more leftwing trade union MPs. Not promotion based on an understanding of life at the sharp end, but based on a shared ideology. Scratch the surface, and those calling for more working-class MPs do not mean more working-class MPs like Hazel Blears, Caroline Flint or Alan Johnson, whose New Labour views they despise. They mean more people who agree with them.

For others, it is part of their ongoing fetishisation of the working class. Many middle-class socialists have canonised the working class. Just consider George Orwell’s homoerotic description of miners in The Road to Wigan Pier. Have a read of John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better, which takes an affectionate prod at middle-class socialists dropping their aitches and pretending to have grown up on estates. Is there anything more patronising?
Tony Benn is the left’s hero. He went to public school and Oxford, and worked for the BBC. Ramsay MacDonald is the left’s villain. He was the illegitimate son of a labourer and a housemaid, and left home at 15 to work on a farm. One is a saint, the other a sinner. Who cares if Balls, Tony Blair and Harriet Harman went to private schools? Working in a call centre does not equip you to be an effective Labour MP any more than a first in PPE. Character, not class, is what counts.

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Progressive


  • Is the author seriously trying to suggest that the working classes in today’s Britain are all miners, shipbuilders and engineers? The point of the calls for more working class MPs – with which I thoroughly agree, despite being a Cambridge graduate, and neither a trade union general secretary nor a member of any ‘ginger groups’ – is that a work history that is entirely based around politics does encourage a monoculture that fails to reflect the society we claim to represent. Would the author make the same argument about increasing the representation of women and BAME in the parliamentary party? Surely if a ‘shared ideology’ is all that matters then who cares what the party looks like? This is nonsense; and the promotion of more working class entrants to high level politics is not based on any purported hatred of New Labour ideology, but on a similar argument to that which underpins all-women shortlists – that some groups find it harder to be represented and selected than others. It is not the fetishisation of the working classes to acknowledge that it is easier for those who have lived an entirely political existence since their university days to find their way into parliament than it is for those who have not, and neither is it class warfare, or based on any myths, or part of some left wing trade union plot. The author would do better to examine the way Labour reflects British society, and where it fails to, than to waste energy and undermining Progress’s credibility with badly argued attacks on straw men. This piece says much more about the author’s lack of any real understanding of where the party has failed in recent years than it does about the working classes or the make-up of the parliamentary Labour Party.

  • Who wrote this ignorant tosh????? Talk about stating the obvious but missing the key point!!!! Of course it’s about character – MLK got that right – the reality is there are a lot of working class people of character (and talent) that get nowhere near Parliament because the middle class intelligentsia (yes including the PPE/Oxbridge elite) carve it up for themselves. And guess what – parliament is not representative and worse for it. And the country is less fair. And the Labour process for recruiting MPs an embarrassment.

  • What a sour little article, seemingly written by someone who deliberately misses the point in order to attempt to draw attention away from the real issues within the party which ARE those about every suit being the same and holding the same degree. I think people outside whatever bubble the author lives in well understand what working class means in 2012 and the ‘leftwing circles’ and ‘ginger groups’ AND Ken Livingstone clearly have a better grasp on reality as far as seeing the need for the party to embrace diversity and put away the PPE

  • A very patronising article indeed.

    To suggest that working class folk are all Miners, dockers etc. is seriously out of touch.

    As a member of Progress, I am of the view that we should encourage people into politics from all backgrounds. However in recent years it seems that those with an Oxbridge education or those that have worked for a political think tank seem to be favoured. If this continues to be our gene pool from which we recruit, we will never be inclusive as a party and we will continue to be disconnected with the wider public.

    We need people who have experienced a life outside politics, people who have had successful careers, people who of course have character but have good leadership, management and life skills.

    In the end, limiting the gene pool from which we recruit does not make us progressive. It is indeed a
    regressive step.

  • Staggeringly complacent piece. Standing for parliament is prohibitively expensive for most people and we need to address how we make our political process and institutions fit for purpose and able to attract a much wider and much more representative group of people. Sadly while there are people with the attitude expressed in this piece, I doubt that much will change.

  • Oh dear I feel a bit sorry for the author of this. I dont want to be harsh because its clearly someone with very limited life experience . Its so naive about the mechanisms of inequality , working class life and really just politics that there is not really any need to challenge its ridiculousness as it undermines itself . However I hope I dont detect fear of not fulflling your aspirations of being an MP because some smart working class person might get the support to fulfill their potential and is able to represent people like them. A group underrepresented . There are seeds of those self interested , prejudiced arguments against moves for fair representation over the years -against extending the mandate, against helping woman , or ethnic minorities or any group that was unfairly excluded by circumstance of birth . Your entitled to your view point but hopefully you will see things from a broader perspective in the future .

  • The authors of this silly article don’t seem to understand that ‘character’ is the outcome of experience throughout life. If your experience is limited to private school and University your character will reflect this. It seems that many in the recent past had that type of experience and so, perhaps despite their intentions, developed policies and practices that did little for those denied such an education. They often came across as out-of-touch and patronising. A bit like the article.

  • Harold Wilson born in modest road in Huddersfield was the son of a works Chemist his Mother was a school teacher, James Callaghan’s born again in a modest road in Portsmouth was the son of a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy. Aneurin Bevan a son of a coal miner and John
    Prescott the son of a railway signalman. Neil Kinnock the son of a coal miner
    who had to seek work as a labourer because of a disease caused through mining. Labour
    will and should be represented by people who were born and brought up in the
    mainstream of British life and that means people who earn a modest living in
    ordinary surroundings. Education is what makes the difference as the Trade
    Unions have proclaimed from their inception. Prescott got his break through a diploma
    gained at Ruskin. Labour is a working people’s movement and always will be.

  • This shows up the fatal weakness of Progress. It is a product of the Westminster bubble and only thinks of the kind of people who populate this rarified world.

    Progress really needs to discover what the other half thinks about and how they can be accommodated into politics at the highest level.

  • > Recent calls for more ‘working-class MPs’ are age-old code for ‘more leftwing trade unionists in parliament’

    In short, no they are not. These are calls for a Labour party that is more representative of the British people, the people it aspires to represent.

    Ignoring the past, it can’t be right that Labour doesn’t have more smart, intelligent MPs from working-class backgrounds. Such people are there, the challenge is for Labour to break down barriers and ensure they have a chance to make it in the party.

    Sure, middle-class MPs are of course not a bad thing. Having too few working-class MPs, as we know, is. Labour’s challenge is to correct that imbalance.

  • This is a disappointing article not up to the usual Progress standard. No-one suggests the Party should be entirely working class but to say “just four” out of 27 Shadow cabinet members are former special advisers as of this is an achievement is just silly. Since when did special advisers represent over 1 in 7 of the jobs in this country? Personally, I want more people of ALL walks of life representing our party not just those who work in Westminster. I do agree character rather than class is what counts but working class people I know have this in abundance as well as knowing what happens in the real world outside the Westminster bubble. Oh and by the way, I am a university educated leftie from Surrey!

  • I agree with Beverley. Being a good MP requires certain skills. However, when most MPs are male, pale and stale – is that not an indication that there’s a significant flaw? We need more women in parliament. We need more young people in parliament. We need more people from minority communities in parliament. And, by addressing these threads of under representation, we will get a lot more good comrades in parliament.

  • Calls for more ‘working-class MPs’ are misguided. But not because of ignorance of party history or ‘fetishisation’ (I think The Progressive means romanticisation) of the’ working class’.

    The calls are misguided because they misunderstand the role of the Labour Party – and of political parties in general. They want a movement of protest, when, in reality, in our democracy today, Labour’s role is either as a government or a government in waiting.

    If I want to protest, then I join a protest organisation. If I want to see state power exerted responsibly for and with the citizens of the UK, then I join Labour and join in its work to promote its vision. If I want both, then I do both.

  • I agree that ‘character’ is important, but I believe that an individual’s ability and life-experience are also highly desirable factors when it comes to the selection of a suitable candidate.
    Most people agree that class shouldn’t be given the prominence that it has in British life. However, the truth of the matter is that class is intrinsic to British society, whether we like it or not: I wish it wasn’t.
    The author of this piece has concocted a series of cliched ‘arguments’, which s/he then has no problem in refuting. I would have thought that if we wish to see parliament as more reflective of British society as a whole, then the Labour Party should include more working-class representatives, together with more women and minorities.
    I write as a Labour moderate of working-class origins, and I simply don’t see this debate in terms of manichean left/right dispute, as that is far too simplistic an approach, and results in a not particularly good analysis of the situation. If we are, and as I believe, Labour to be the genuine ‘One-Nation’ party, then we should seek to have our representatives reflect all the various facets of the UK.

  • As someone who went onto a building site aged seventeen and whose father was killed in an accident on the docks when I was fifteen I can claim to be working class. The main thrust of the article is correct in that there should be ore working class people in Parliament. There are far to many policy wonks there all ready with more on the way but how do you get people onto the Westminster benches or onto the councils which are more and more representing Parliament.

    The fact of the matter is that in order to be a councillor or MP it is necessary to join a political party at local level and do the leg work on the way up. Yes, I know that there are Labour dynasties like the Benns, but in most cases the former is the way things are done. If the chambers of governance are unrepresentative that is because of the way parties structure themselves.

    If the present structure is considered to be incorrect or undesirable for some reason or other then how is it to be changed? I am a practical person and always ask unpractical people that question. The only answer is quotas and if that were to be imposed the scenario envisioned by the writer would, to a certain extent, come about.

    The Trades Unions would have to be given blocks of seats where only their members would be allowed to put their names forward for a list of whatever length. This would mean that depending on the political orientation of the union leadership the candidates would represent that tendency and not the make up of the local party.

    The consequences would be people from outside an area being imposed on the local party which would of course cause resentment, quite rightly, with a Livingstone/London result that local party members would simply not go out and canvass. Because the London Party is effective controlled by unions and the far left his selection was effectively an imposition.

    This would also open the door to all women and all ethnic minority shortlists with even more desertions and mutinies and Labour guaranteed to be out of power for a generation. So, more working class people a good idea? Yes, the most under represented section of the country is white working class women. How do you get this mix without making the party unelectable? You can’t.

    I would of course like to see the House of Commons with people like my parents and grandparents in it but the only system that could achieve that would be abused by the far left in the unions and the racial warriors now fortunately represented by the absolutely pathetic Dianne Abbott. Just think of the disaster, the Labour benches packed with Livingstones, Abbotts and Crowes. It would of course be an opposition bench, permanently.

  • If its code for anything its code for “can we get some people into Parliament who have done something other than work for people who are already in Parliament!.

  • The author ruins a salient point with his or her self-righteousness. They also miss Orwell’s point about class in the Labour movement, which they have certainly read if they can cite Wigan Pier:

    “The people who have got to act together are all those who
    cringe to the boss and all those who shudder when they think of the
    rent. This means that the small-holder has got to ally himself with the
    factory-hand, the typist with the coal-miner, the schoolmaster with the
    garage mechanic. There is some hope of getting them to do so if they can
    be made to understand where their interest lies.”

  • Labour has never been middle class, because, we have been infiltrated by idiots like the author of this piece of $$$$ and have slid further and further right over the years, until people on the street can’t see a fag paper between any of the parties. I see no authors name attatched, it looks to me that the author is bringing the party into disrepute.This policy was adfopted at conference. Please go and join the Tories where you know your heart lies.
    I am a miner, proud to be the son of a miner, and proud to be a grandson of a miner,Next you’ll be bleating ”the enemy within” does it ring your bell.

  • Oh how depressing to read this, all this really say to people like me is we’ve put too much faith in a party that will never truly deliver for the majority of working people for over a century now and once elected from any background they just become part of a political class. I am a socialist, trade unionist and worker who feels that inspite of the political class who largely support the status quo of Capital accumulation for the few at the expense of the many we continue to live in hope that one day, power, wealth and opportunity will be in the hands of the many not the few. I want a party that doesn’t patronise me and really wants to include me in all areas of my existence not just engage me when they want my vote or leaflet posting skills. I start out to work at 6.45 am on trains that we pay a fortune for, they are crammed full, the alternative to this is massive traffic queues, I work longer for less, I have no control over the decisions that are taken for me in the interest of someone else for their benefit and should be grateful I have a job, if I lose this job I am then even more vulnerable because benefits come nowhere near what we need to keep going, I am then classed as a scrounger. I live in a society that truly depends on cooperation and then told the individual is all. So it comes down to character over class, individual over the collective. Very New Labour, New Britain!

  • This article articulates perfectly why we need more ‘working class’ candidates. Try spouting this patronising rubbish in the workplace or on the doorstep and you’ll find out exactly why Labour managed to lose 5 million voters between 1997 and 2005.
    Parliament should reflect society and yes we need bankers and lawyers in there but if Labour is ever going to win another election political Progress clones need not apply.
    To insinuate all trade unionists are male and manual workers is lazy at the very least and pig ignorant at worst.Am sure the author of this article will be clinging to union membership probably Community when they try and go for selection in some nice seat up north!

  • I think the point is being missed here. We as the populace would like to see more working class MPs whatever party. MPs who understand what most of us are going through. We don’t need more rich twonks whose only interest is getting more power and feathering their nests, and I direct this at all the parties. The problem is that lower paid workers don’t stand a chance of becoming a MP as it takes a certain amount of financial security to be able to give the time for canvassing.

  • I want to see state power – the power of government – exerted to extend social justice and well-being. First in the UK and elsewhere in the EU. Second further afield.

    Perhaps your priorities are the other way around? Are you, then, 100% sure that, today, you would make the right calls on Syria, on Iran, on Israel and all the other hotspots? You seem to opt for the greater certainty of hindsight – in which case you had better wait a century or two.

  • The right call on Syria, Iran and Israel, just as in Iraq (1916 as well as 1990- 2003) and Afghanistan (1839…as well as 2001) is: My Our Own Business. Extending (the British and American) state power to these countries has brought mass murder and misery. The Iraqi Ba’ath party extended state power – to increase social justice (Iraqi women had more high posts under the Ba’ath, including the Saddam Hussein years, than today), and wellbeing (education and health expanded hugely in those years, and have barely got back to 1960’s levels); as for power supply and sewage, they are far worse than even in 1991, the start of the genocidal sanctions (‘half a million dead Iraqi children is a price well worth paying – Madeleine Allbright). For facts see Kanan Makiya’s indictment (“Republic of Fear”)of Saddam Hussein who reluctantly admits the above mentioned domestic Iraqi achievements. If the above misery and murder is Martinay’s notion of social justice and wellbeing, I shudder to think of what she is like when she commits war crimes.
    The author has noted the intent of the likes of McCluskey, but does not address the appalling public-sector-centredness of British (and indeed of most modern) trade unionism. At the industry’s maximum – in 1913 – British miners confronted a semi-feudal set of owners. Cotton, engineering etc were all bourgeois run. By 1981 Scargill was boasting that miners could let their shovels rust as they did not have to pay for replacements – it was all down to the state (aka your and my taxes). Bring back Joe Gormley, Frank Chapple, Bill Jordan and Eric Hammond!

  • I have read a number of Progress articles and I am struck by the continual attacks of the “lefties”. One of the leading lights of Progress boasts of being the scourge of “lefties” well an attitude like that is not likely to endear himself to me or the thousands of Labour activists who knock on the doors deliver leaflets and all the other activities we indulge in, because we believe in the values and beliefs, we believe the Party should hold.
    As one of the so called working class “lefties” I take great umbrage in being disparaged by anyone within this party just because I have a different view than theirs. I attended a Progress fringe meeting in at the Liverpool Conference, it was like listening to a bunch of talking heads, with all sorts of fancy ideas of what was the right thing to do regarding Social Housing. I even got to ask a question and not surprisingly it was ignored and never got an answer, maybe it was too “left wing” for them to contemplate ?
    42 years ago I was elected as a councillor at the age of 21, all I know 42 years on, without over simplifying, is that the needs, wants, hopes and aspirations of the “working class” people I represented then are the same needs, wants, hopes and aspirations of “working people” now. Good meaningful jobs, good education for their children, a decent home to live in and Health service that takes care of the Health needs throughout the life.The task for the Party is how to achieve this.
    We have tried the slavish devotion to the Financial sector and Corporate business and the rabid tabloid press, now we can see that approach has failed. I hear all the time that between 1997 and 2010 we lost five million votes, but the protaganistst of New Labour and Blairite followers forget to tell us we lost four million of those votes between 1997 and 2005 and their wasn’t a wild “left winger” or a crazed Trade Union leader in sight ! The core beliefs of the Party were suppressed for the Holy Grail of power at any cost even to sacrificing some of our treasured beliefs.
    When my MP (Geoff Hoon)stood down before the last election, he made the comment at his final meeting, “that some of the Party” i.e. “left wingers” are happier in opposition with our principles”, No! we want to be in power with our principles, the last time I heard that argument was 40 years ago ! The hankering for the good old days of New Labour remind me of those Tories hankering for the return of a “Thatcherite” figure. We have moved on, there are stirring from the ranks below, we take exception to “bright young things”, who have come from University done their time as aides to this minister or that shadow minister and treat ordinary Party members with disdain, we have had enough of it !
    We lost the support of five million voters, because we moved away from their needs, wants, hopes and aspirations and gave our support to the charlatans who populate the City and the Editors and owners of the right wing press. You only have to knock on as many doors as we have in Ashfield to know that, you don’t need fancy Focus groups or earnest academics to work that out ! They cannot see any difference between us and the other Parties, even though we may know there is, the people don’t see it, we have to correct this belief but we won’t do it by following the same policies we have for the last number of years. We have to have policies that reflect the modern day needs, wants, hopes and aaspirations of ALL the people of Britain, not just the narrow sectional views of what we know as the middle class.
    We will not regain the trust of the people, if we cannot accept of all points of view within our own Party, without resorting to tribal warfare.
    The Party must be opened up to all views within the party and not have one grouping disparaging any other grouping. The elite of the “Westminster Village” do not have all the answers. There is an untapped wealth of knowledge and experience out there in the Party, in all shades and colours that should be called on to restore this Party to its rightful position in power and not have their views written off because it doesn’t conform to some centre right agenda

  • We where chatting about this in the pub last night, 86 year old Syd wanted to see more sons of the miners but I reminded him Peter Mandleson was a relation of Herbert Moris and I got a fek off from him.

  • Surely it shouldn’t be that difficult to get a coalition of 40-60% of the electorate of ordinary people for full employment, civilised decent living wages, public utilities run for public purposes using public money created for the same public purposes, rather than the sad, tired, repeatedly failed and underachieving overpaid rulers we’ve had for the last 40 odd years?

Sign up to our daily roundup email