Why I’m voting Labour

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I’m voting Labour. Obviously you’d hope that’s what I’d say in a column for LabourList, but I want to use my final column before Election Day to explain my decision. The usual purpose of this column is to write about what Class is up to, so I want to be clear that I am not setting out a position for Class, which is an independent think tank unaffiliated with any particular party or union.

But I am voting Labour. And here’s why.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve worked with lots of people in Westminster: advisors, researchers, MPs, even a peer or two. For my sins I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the place itself. And what I’ve learned is that Westminster is a giant machine that consumes (relatively) ordinary people, puts them through a process of digestion and then spits them out as politicians. Westminster is a behemoth; an incredibly resilient institution, which even the most principled MPs would struggle to change. If Natalie Bennett became Prime Minister she would be subsumed by the Westminster Machine. If Russell Brand became Prime Minister, I would emigrate – but he too would be subsumed by the Westminster Machine. The Machine is bigger than any one person within it.

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The Westminster Machine works in a number of ways, and here are a few of them. First, there’s the culture of the place. Most people reading this will never have set foot in Westminster, so let me tell you: that place is weird. It looks opulent and ancient and it’s full of secret passages. Its arcane conventions and traditions – and how mortifying for you if you don’t understand them – are juxtaposed by the drabness of its grey-suited inhabitants. Everything about it gives it the impression of an exclusive club. The atmosphere is somewhere between a robotic corporate law firm and Eton. Difference is not encouraged (I know one advisor who was reprimanded for wearing office clothes which were “too bright”), and most people I know who have worked there survive by conforming or leaving. The idea that one person could enter Westminster and change its suffocating culture is unrealistic – whoever they are.

Then there’s the bureaucratic side of the Westminster Machine. Westminster is a place bogged down in procedure and convention, which makes real change painfully slow. For instance, only a small group of MPs in the cabinet can actually propose legislation in Westminster, and they have to do it collectively, meaning anyone who objects must resign. But even those in the cabinet are held back by the civil service. Owen Jones details this well in The Establishment: “When Margaret Thatcher attempted to establish a new political consensus, she found herself battling against the small ‘c’ conservative tendencies of the civil service. This frustration at a general resistance to change on the part of the civil service is shared by political operators of all stripes. ‘You can really feel like you’ve spent all your life trying to get to this place where power is, only to find it isn’t there,’ says [former advisor to Tony Blair] Philip Collins, recalling the painfully slow process of implementing policies.”

There’s the lobby, which is the name for the journalists who are based in Westminster itself. Don’t get me wrong, the lobby does a really important job and is vital for democracy. But in my role at Class, I’ve had political correspondents phone me up and try to trick me. They’re not doing it because they want to expose some terrible scandal. Most of the time they’re just trying to find a nugget of truth upon which they can hang a story that they’ve decided upon already – usually something about Ed Miliband being a dangerous socialist who receives communiques from Len McCluskey. The lobby’s shenanigans terrify politicians: they know that once a journalist has decided to paint them in a certain light, the truth is irrelevant. So they retreat into their personas as bland technocrats in the hope that they won’t give anything away that could be used against them. I think MPs are far too supine when it comes to the press. On the other hand, it’s hard to be bold when you know the way you eat a bacon sandwich will be used to traduce your entire character.

Then there’s the fact that once you become a politician, particularly a front bencher, you are hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. Westminster itself embodies that: it’s in a part of London you’d never visit otherwise and the security is incredibly tight. It feels separate. But more than that; when you’re a member of the cabinet you spend much less time with the people you represent than with other powerful people – like MPs, rich donors, or the heads of powerful institutions and industries. In an abstract way, politicians are answerable to the people; but in a tangible, everyday way they are answerable to the powerful. It is the powerful that politicians have the awkward conversations with after certain bills have passed; it is the powerful that most MPs mix with socially. Politicians have more opportunities to empathise with the powerful.

In light of the Westminster Machine, I don’t see voting as a romantic attempt to showcase my principles. Voting can only ever be a tactical act as long as it remains the practice of installing new caretakers for the Westminster Machine. It is certainly not an act that will deliver significant social change (that’s a piece for another time). For me, voting is about choosing the party that will make the Machine easier to win concessions from. In this election, the realistic choices are Labour or the Conservatives. So, with all considerations taken into account, I’m voting Labour. A Westminster with Labour at the helm is obviously easier to challenge than the alternative, will make that engagement a little easier, and winning a little more possible.

As the US political organiser Saul Alinsky puts it: “This is where the world is. This is where you start.” Right now, these are the choices we have.

So I am voting Labour.

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