David Goodhart is wrong: it’s not Labour activists who have become disconnected with the country



In a recent, much discussed article David Goodhart makes several keen observations about the disconnection between the Labour Party and the country we seek to represent and to lead.

His argument about the breakdown of left/right political affiliation  are quite right and not something the Labour Party as it is currently constituted has quick or easy answers to.

But Goodhart makes a fundamental mistake in his description of the Labour Party:

“Labour is a self-consciously progressive party dominated by highly educated people who tend to believe they see the world more clearly and understand people’s interests better than they do themselves – the default instinct of both the educated and the centre left. But this top-down political temperament and the wider worldview and language of the Labour activist barely overlaps any longer with the average voter.”

Goodhart is absolutely right in the first half of this description. Labour is and remains far too dominated by people who want to do things for people – often people people they don’t really know or understand – rather than enable and empower people to get on with doing things for themselves, their families and their communities.

But he is disastrously wrong about our activists.

Yes it’s a problem that half of Labour’s membership lives in London. But even then, the vast majority of these don’t fit Goodhart’s description. They are not the metropolitan liberal glitterati. They just happen to live and work where the jobs are.

And across the country, Labour members aren’t the elite monsters of Goodhart’s imagination. They are people who run small (and large) businesses and people who work in them. They are workers in the public sector, in charities and in the private sector too. They are students, they are retirees, they are young and old, disabled and able bodied and reflect the colour and class diversity of Britain.

Goodhart can be forgiven for not recognising and reflecting this. After all, the party at the centre is fundamentally unwilling to recognise it too. We pay a great deal of lip service to the value of our activist base, but we do very little to value them and even less to listen to them. As David Allen has pointed out, even when ordinary members from these diverse backgrounds are elected as MPs they are considerably less likely to be promoted or to lead. We reserve that space for those who look and act as we expect politicians to. Then we wonder why everyone complains that we’re all the same.

As I travelled around working alongside activists in seats all over the country, I heard complaint after complaint about the way they were marginalised and mistreated at times. I have my own stories to tell of ways in which the Party has disrespected highly valuable and able activists. The “leaflet fodder” attitude is unfortunately alive and well.

Goodhart concludes his piece by saying:

“There has recently been much use of the famous Bertolt Brecht quote about dissolving the people and electing another. Labour has to do something similar – if not dissolve its current membership, then at least find a new set of leaders who connect culturally with the country it aspires to rule.”

I cannot disagree more. Despite correctly recognising that it is a top down attitude that has disconnected the Party at the centre from the people it seeks to be elected by, Goodhart casually dismisses the activist base and focuses once again on the elite centre.

Our activists are valuable not just – not even mostly – for what they can do for the Party in traditional campaigning terms but in their connections to communities up and down the country. It is not by dismissing them that we will reconnect, but by listening to them. Not just to the bits we want to hear but particularly to the bits we find uncomfortable. Because it is not the activists in the Labour Party who have become disconnected with the country, it is those who refused to listen to the warnings they have been giving us for years.

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