Winning back the working class

Labour was once seen as the builders of the future. We need to be again, argued Liam Byrne MP at Progress annual conference 2017

With a campaign as radical as it was united, Labour is within touching distance of government. A 3.1 per cent swing is all we need to carry Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. For that final step, we now need to translate one of the greatest strap-lines in Labour history – ‘for the many not the few’ – into a project that delivers a comprehensive victory among the voters we must still inspire: Britain’s working class voters who this year voted Tory.

Our new surge tide of support was truly impressive. Around 2.5 million of voters at this election did not vote in 2015. Of these new voters, a massive 1.9 million opted for Labour. We took 30 per cent of Plaid Cymru voters, 25 per cent of the United Kingdom Independence party’s vote, 12 per cent from the Scottish National party and somewhere near 75 per cent of the Green party’s 2015 support. We do not need deals with other parties to deliver a progressive coalition. Labour is Britain’s progressive coalition. With the collapse of four party politics, we shot to an astonishing vote tally of 12.9 million, restoring the party to our 2001 levels of vote share. Only Clement Attlee managed a similar increase in the share of the vote.

But it was not quite enough.

If we learned one thing from the 1997 landslide, it was this: to win big and change Britain for good, we have to weld the broad swath Britain’s middle and working class into a coalition for change. At this election, we made good progress. We largely reversed the 2005 decline in our support among middle-class voters and inspired a majority in every social class, under the age 44. But now, we need to deepen and broaden among our country’s working class, the people who founded Labour, the cause we were born to serve.

The Tories increased their share of C2DE votes by 12 percentage points, mostly with older voters. The Tories won more C2 votes than Labour. We managed to win the support of 33 per cent of voters with GCSE qualifications and below – but the Tories won 55 per cent. Across the Midlands and the old coalfields into Yorkshire, seat after seat saw a small swing to the Tories, big enough to lose us Walsall North, Stoke-on-Trent South and Middleborough South. MORI estimates that around one million people who voted Labour in 2015, shifted their votes to the Tories.

The challenge for us now is to recover working-class support in English marginals without fragmenting the impressive new electoral coalition assembled this year. And we can do it by going back to the essence of Labour’s appeal.

This was put to me best, by one of my constituents early in the campaign. ‘Labour’ he said me, ‘is the best self-help society that working people have ever invented’. We are, as Red Shift has argued, a ‘we’ party – not a ‘me’ party like the Tories. We deliver progress by doing things together, around a set of values that have resonated down the generations: patriotism, hard work, decency and compassion.

Labour has had lean years because while our coalition is united on economic issues – like the role of strong trade unions, or the rightful share of national wealth for working people, or the value of public services – we have been divided on social questions, especially immigration. So the key to uniting a deeper, new coalition is a project that every part of our coalition can agree on.

We know its component parts: in an age of uncertainty, we must provide new certainty and stability. We have to help people survive and thrive in the fast and furious change around us. We have to reinvent simple, public, collective help to help people get on by doing things better, together – from social care to retraining as new industries rise, and old trades disappear. It is about renewing the public realm for new times, from a 21st century big data and digital infrastructure, to traditional public goods like social housing, to new systems of defence and policing to keep us safe from new threats. Crucially, we have to show how building a new security for the old demands we transform opportunity for the young.

What we found in the West Midlands is the essence of our appeal is that voters see as Britain’s builders: we built the welfare state; we built the great institutions of the 1960s like the Open University; we rebuilt schools and hospitals after 1997. Labour builds futures but we combine it with compassion, concern, decency and a thirst for social justice.

Theresa May lost her gamble. She thought 2017 was a ‘continuity election’. She thought Britain wanted just more of the same. She was utterly, utterly wrong. Britain wants change. And Labour could now be on the threshold of making it happen.

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Liam Byrne MP is member of parliament for Hodge Hill. He tweets at @LiamByrneMP

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Photo: Richard Gardiner

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