Giving up on the “white working class” is a 20% strategy

Luke Akehurst

John McTernan’s recent analysis of Labour and British politics has been rather good. I was therefore rather surprised to see the absurd conclusion he arrived at in his FT article yesterday(£).

He started out well enough by correctly saying  there is little prospect of or appetite for a split in Labour’s ranks over Europe or immigration as we work out how to respond to UKIP.

But he then concludes that this is because the “white working class” don’t matter to Labour any more and is no longer part of our base.

This isn’t the basis of either the much discussed 40% strategy or even of a 35% strategy, but of a 20% strategy.


Labour’s strength and resilience has been because of the distinctive nature of the party as a party rooted in a class, the working class, and organisationally linked to it via the trade union link, and then adding in other ideological allies to build a broad coalition that can win elections. This differentiates it from non class based attempts at radical parties, like the SDP, the story of which has ended in the tragicomedy of ex-SDP figures like Vince Cable propping up a Tory government. It also differentiates it from socialist sister parties founded on purely ideological lines without a union link or clear class basis of support, such as the PS in France. If you want to see what a centre left party without working class support looks like, look across the channel at the PS – lucky to get 20% of the vote and with the working class now backing the far right Front National.

Unlike John I am not ready to give up the working class as the core pillar of Labour’s support and let them fall into the clutches of UKIP, a party that on any objective analysis would act in ways wholly damaging to their interests.

Unlike John I think Labour has to have policies that appeal to all groups in society, but particularly the working people our party was created to give a voice to in Parliament and even named after. If we aren’t going to be the party of Labour why did we bother setting up as a separate party to the Liberals in 1900?

Unlike John I am not dismissive of the concerns about migration that are fuelling UKIP’s rise. They need to be addressed and our job is to find ways of addressing them that are not the divisive xenophobic path being offered by UKIP.

Unlike John I wouldn’t snobbishly dismiss the importance of voters who are “older, unskilled workers who left formal education at 15”. That’s basically my dad he is talking about. I happen to respect my dad and the people like him who left school at 15 to do tough manual jobs. I want them to have a Labour Party they can vote for and that stands up for them.  John says “This group has been rapidly shrinking.” But they vote. Older people turn out in far higher numbers.

John claims that “It is the professional middle classes, together with the young, and black and minority ethnic voters, who are Labour’s base now”. That’s a great coalition if you want to win in Hackney, and believe me as a Hackney campaign manager in four borough elections I know how to mobilise that coalition. It’s a great coalition to win a handful of marginal seats like Hampstead and Kilburn or Hornsey and Wood Green. With a good turnout it might even win you Mayor of London.

But it is an insufficient coalition to deliver a General Election victory. Look at a list of Labour’s key target seats that includes holding Great Grimsby and taking Great Yarmouth, Dover, Thurrock and Harlow. If you are telling me you can do that without the white working class then you are a Grade 1 idiot. As John is not an idiot, I can only assume he is trolling us or trying to be provocative in order to get published by the national press.

John talks about “an electoral coalition of liberal-leaning city-dwellers at ease with the modern world”. But we don’t live in a country comprising only cities. If you want to see the electoral success that coalition delivers look at the handful of inner London boroughs and university cities that were the only places that voted Yes in the AV referendum (I’ve lived and been a party activist in several of them).

We still live in a country where the circulation of the Sun and Mirror is over twelve times higher than that of the Guardian and Independent. I would have thought this obvious fact of electoral maths would have been apparent to a self-proclaimed “political strategist”, particularly one who worked for Tony Blair when Blair painstakingly won back the blue-collar voters we had lost to Thatcherism.

Let’s remember what and who the Labour Party is for. Then we might build a coalition broad enough to be back in power this time next year.

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