Working-class woes

Ben Dilks with the latest from the wonk world

Coming just a day after the news that key backer David Sainsbury is to withdraw his financial support from party political causes, Progress included, at the end of 2017, this year’s annual conference might have been a sombre affair. Instead the atmosphere was buoyant as activists keen to debate how Labour can capitalise on last month’s election result descended on the Trades Union Congress centre from across the country.

While there was an inevitable degree of jubilation that the party had performed so much better than expected, it was accepted across the board that there was no time for complacency. Leading members of the shadow cabinet were the first to acknowledge that the result was simply not good enough. Failure to secure a majority yet again meant the Tories were still in power.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott echoed Progress director Richard Angell’s message that that ‘opposition is no substitute for being in government’ when it comes to transforming the lives of her constituents. ‘The member of parliament for Hackney is always interested in winning because my young people’s life-chances depend on it’, she added.

Having argued for ‘one last push’, Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, paused to reflect on Labour’s loss. ‘I’m not turning my back on the fact that we lost five seats’, she said. It raised the question of how Labour had managed to perform so well in certain parts of the country while its voteshare dwindled in some traditional heartlands. ‘Mansfield and Middlesbrough’ – the former being a seat Labour had held since the 1920s – became a refrain, as the apparent failure to appeal to working-class voters emerged as the key theme of the conference.

Former leadership candidate Liz Kendall noted that working-class support for the Tories was at its highest levels since 1979. Liam Byrne, MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, quoted figures that said Labour won the votes of only 35 per cent of those with GCSE qualifications and below, where the Tories won 55 per cent.

How can Labour address the problem? Hove MP Peter Kyle offered the simple advice that if the manifesto is to be packed with retail offers, there needs to be something of relevance for everyone. Promising the renationalisation of the railways is all well and good for those who commute up and down to London, he said, but that policy does not speak to the white van drivers in his constituency who have not taken a train in a decade. There must be as much emphasis on Labour’s offer to students in further education as there was on university tuition fees this time round, he argued.

Philip Collins of The Times prompted laughter when he thanked Jeremy Corbyn for the offer of £60,000 to pay for his children’s university tuition, but mused that it might not be the most progressive allocation of government funds. It was a point picked up by former Ed Miliband aide Polly Billington, who highlighted an analysis of the Labour and Conservative manifestos by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which found the differential impact of their proposals on the poorest in society to be more or less the same.

Of course if Labour is to renew its appeal among working-class voters, the party would do well to ensure its own house is in order. Miriam Rice, from Ealing North, described how as someone from a working-class background she has been made to feel unwelcome in her local party by new members from the hard-left. Others took activist Paul Mason to task for his aggressive and exclusionary language on Twitter.

Mason refused to apologise. He in fact told the audience the ‘time is right’ for them to set up a ‘pro-Remain party that is in favour of illegal wars’. On the wider point, he acknowledged the party had work to do in order to get back in touch with its working-class roots but seemed to miss the irony when he emphasised the reception Corbyn had received among the crowds at Glastonbury. “[The cheers were because] they believe that we are totally serious when we say we are going to tear down the free-market economy,” he said. “As long as Jeremy is leader that is what we will try to do.”

If the reaction of those in the room is anything to go by, Progress members could not be any more resolved about the need for people like them in the labour movement. Members like Miriam are not going anywhere anytime soon.

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Ben Dilks is a newspaper journalist. He tweets at @BenDilks

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Photo: Richard Gardner

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Comments: 1...

  1. On July 7, 2017 at 10:27 am Anon responded with... #

    The “crowds at Glastonbury” are nothing to do with the people Labour need to vote; the votes Labour need are having their faces trodden into the dirt by large-scale immigration.

    The chasm grows.

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