Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A response to ‘Character, not class’

On November 1 Progress published an article  (‘Character not class’) that was by its nature provocative. I think it’s important that we consider the issues raised about working class representation in the parliamentary Labour party in a wider context.

Let’s be clear there is a major problem with our politics. You don’t need a MORI poll to know that most people think our MPs are out of touch with their concerns. And let’s not kid ourselves that this is a problem confined to Cameron and his cronies. So Mr Progressive may want to express his personal suspicions about the nature of the current campaign by trades unions to increase the number of MPs with  working class backgrounds but I (and I think a lot of Progress members) think they have a point. At every election the number of Labour MPs from professional backgrounds is increasing. The latest round of selections shows little sign of improvement when we look at working class constituencies throughout the country. And no this is not a left wing cause. We should be asking where the next generation of MPs of the calibre of Jack Ashley, Geoff Rooker and Mo Mowlem are coming from?

But also the problem for those who care about progressive politics is wider than this. Surrounding the Mother of Parliament are upwards of 20,000 lobbyists, think tanks, charities and professional interests. The noise from these organisations (even when they are our side) crowd out the views and perspectives of those who lack such contacts (ie 99 per cent of the population). They also provide career opportunities for aspirant politicians and retiring MPs which further insulates them from the realities of life for everyone else. The related issue of unpaid internships offered by these organisations (and to their shame a number of Labour MPs) further seek to lock out those from working class and all moderate incomes.

So should we care? Maybe politics is the only form of legalised blood sport and in a Darwinian sense the strongest will come through for the betterment of all of us. Or maybe not as the following examples will suffice;

My local hospital is about to close. Not because of ‘Tory cuts’ but ‘Labour PFI’ (and it will be the first of several) Despite all the evidence that PFI was a rotten deal Labour secretaries of state were immune from debate.

For those will rely on bus travel outside London we have the worst services and highest prices in Europe. For thirteen years in power Labour (and yes I mean you Lord Prescott) did nothing. A combination of indifferent civil servants in London and robber baron bus companies saw to that.

But perhaps the biggest problem of a narrowing life experience of our MPs and a over-powerful centralist state means that we have created a dependency culture in the Labour party. The only job is town is to become a Labour MP and the only ambition is to get on the circuit in the Westminster mile. It comes to something when we have to rely on Lord Heseltine to make the case for a regional economic growth strategy.

So yes good luck to the Trades Unions if they want to get more of their members into parliament. Just so long as this means a bit more than getting a few trade union officials or Labour media stars into parliament. This could be a fantastic opportunity to get those with genuine shop and office experience and a passion for Labour politics the support they need to win in  front of Labour selection committees. But Trades Union do not have a monopoly on encouraging working class representation in Parliament. There are real opportunitiesfor Progress to assist. Here are two examples:

– The Labour Party in Parliament currently lacks any representation from our armed forces below the level of officer. Our party and our parliament would benefit from their inclusion yet they face specific problems due to lack of a permanent address and ability to participate whilst in military service. Progress could work with national agencies such as the British Legion to provide advice and support to those other ranks who share our values and want to become involved In Labour politics.

– with honourable exceptions in the North East nearly all of the women currently becoming Labour PPCs in safe and winnable seats are from professional backgrounds. We need to find more effective ways of ensuring women from non professional occupations ( ie 80 per cent of the population) have similar opportunities. There is a clear opportunity for Progress to work on a pro bona basis with unions such as USDAW to equip its active women members with the skills and contacts to succeed in Parliamentary selections.

Let’s be clear if the party and associated organisations do nothing on present trends working class representation will have disappeared from the PLP within a generation. It’s about timely Progress (and other Labour organisations) contributed to this debate.


Paul Wheeler is a Progress member and special adviser at the LGA. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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Paul Wheeler

is the founder of the Political Skills Forum

1 comment

  • Nothing said here contradicts what the Progressive article was saying though. The point of said article was to say that some groups are using the mantle ‘working class MPs’ as a cover for what they really want, which is ‘more left-wing MPs’, which is fine if you want to argue for it, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that being working class is being left-wing, as The Progressive pointed out when he/she mentioned MPs like Alan Johnson.

    There’s an entire debate about the relative ‘left-wingness’ of working class people, which doesn’t correspond with the idealised version discussed by a lot of trade union groups.

    I don’t think anyone, and I don’t think The Progressive was espousing it either, disagrees with the notion of more MPs of a working class/non-professional background.

    The point is whether everyone who discusses ‘working class’ actually means working class, or whether they mean ‘left-wing’, which is something else entirely and it is something we should be aware of.

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