We need to remember what we’re for

21st September, 2011 4:32 pm

labour 1957 posterBy Owen Jones / @owenjones84

As we approach Labour’s 106th annual conference, it’s worth remembering what Thomas R. Steels envisaged the party was for. Steels was a railway signalman from Doncaster and, in 1899, drafted a motion for his local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants calling for the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee to assemble a congress with the support “of all the cooperative, socialistic, trade union and other working class organisations” to look how it could secure “a better representation of the interests of labour in the House of Commons.”

At the 20th century approached, there were two major political parties in Britain: the Liberals and the Tories. They both represented particular wings of the ruling class. Working-class people, on the other hand, lacked a meaningful political voice. But Steels’ motion was deeply divisive: there were those trade unionists who felt the best way of serving workers’ interests was by supporting the supposedly progressive members of the Liberal Party. Steels’ proposal was passed at TUC Congress, but by a relatively narrow margin – 546,000 votes against 434,000 against. The Labour Representation Committee was formed with the specific brief of, well, giving labour representation; and, in 1905, the Labour Party was born.

With Britain in the midst of the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, many would today struggle to define exactly what the Labour Party is for. Thirteen years of New Labour muddied the water: although there were reforms that – however limited – certainly benefited working-class people (like the minimum wage and increased public spending), Blairism accepted the key tenets of Thatcherism. Low taxation on the wealthy and big business; the rule of the free market; weak, shackled trade unions; many communities still bereft of secure, respectably paid work; historic levels of inequality – all of these remained in place.

During the leadership election, Ed Miliband certainly alluded to the original purpose of the Party in a way that very few senior Labour politicians had during the New Labour period. He spoke of a “crisis of working-class political representation” – a phrase that had, until then, bounced off the walls of thinly attended left-wing meetings for years, and I should know, because I attended many of them. We haven’t, however, heard much of this since he was elected leader (I’d say “safely ensconced” but, with the ever-powerful Blairites continually biting at his heels, that’s not true).

But, if this Conference is to demonstrate that the Labour Party is relevant, we need to reaffirm its original purpose: to give working-class people a voice, and to fight for their interests. What’s more, it needs to do this with the same grit, determination and cleverness the Tories are capable of when fighting for their lot – the people at the top.

Of course Labour’s working-class base is very different to what it was in Steels’ time. Rather than working in docks, factories and down mines, people are more likely to work in shops, call centres and offices. Retail is now the second biggest employer; there are around a million call centre workers – as many as there were working in pits at the peak of mining. The working-class has changed in shape, but it remains Labour’s actual and potential base.

While the average Britain is experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s, it remains boomtime for the people at the top. Last year, the income of FTSE 100 chief executives went up by 55%. “There’s class warfare, all right,” as billionaire American Warren Buffett put it, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” It’s not about Labour waging the class war – it’s about accepting that it’s happening and working out which side it’s on.

For years, the New Labour mantra was that, unless the Party kept onside ‘Middle Britain’ (i.e. affluent voters, not the real Middle Britain who are the median income of £21,000 a year) it would never win an election. After all, working-class voters had nowhere to go, or so New Labour advisers thought. But this strategy died its final death in 2010. Five million Labour voters disappeared between 1997 and 2010, but the Tories only won a million.

The ‘ABC1DE’ model of social classifications used by pollsters has all sorts of flaws, but it certainly gives us some understanding of who abandoned Labour. While Labour support among the middle-class professional ABs went down by just 5 points over thirteen years of government, among skilled and semi-skilled workers (the C2s), it collapsed by 21 points; among DEs at the bottom, Labour lost 19 points. Much of this is to do with the fact that working-class voters are increasingly sitting on their hands rather than vote: the class gap in turnout grows with every election. Universal suffrage is unwinding by stealth.

As Ed Miliband himself pointed out during the leadership election (but not, again, since), if Labour had just kept hold of its DEs, it would have emerged as the biggest single party at the last election.

So how does Labour win those voters back? It’s far from straightforward, however easy some of those on the left like myself might sometimes claim. The left barely exists as a political force in this country; three decades of Thatcherism has, undoubtedly, had a profound impact on social attitudes; and we remain dominated by a right-wing media that regarded the 50p tax (one of the most popular policies of the last government) as new wave Bolshevism.

But it means addressing the lack of work; job insecurity and the lack of rights in the workplace; the fact that wages were stagnating or declining even before the crash; and a housing crisis that has left 5 million people languishing on social housing waiting lists. All of this means defying the free market system that New Labour was virtually married to.

And at a time of economic crisis, it means developing a coherent alternative to the Tories’ attempt to use the crash to re-order society and – in the process – send Britain off the same cliff Ireland jumped off. We face a generation of austerity that will leave a generation of working-class young people without a secure future and, therefore, hope; and millions facing the threat of unemployment, declining living standards and ever-deteriorating living standards.

That’s the debate Labour needs to be having next week. Because of all the assaults on Labour Party internal democracy over the last generation and how stage-managed its Conference now is, I doubt it will happen. But the truth is, unless Labour remembers what it is for and makes that purpose relevant in these crisis-ridden times, it will never win an election again. This is no longer about principle; it’s about survival.

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