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.
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