Jonathan Rutherford, as so often, puts his finger firmly on the Labour dilemma: What does Labour stand for when it is no longer the party of the working class? But the answer is simple. In a world where old class solidarities are gone, going, or at best, no longer what they used to be, our task is this: in the sharing age taking shape around us, we must be the folks who refresh fraternity – and turn that fraternity into ideas that let individuals and families thrive.
I don’t think Jonathan understates the problem. When our Red Shift research team hit the streets of key seats this summer, we were stunned at how people saw Labour as lost. “I’ve no idea who Labour stands for any more,” said one nice lady to me outside Watford station, “in fact I don’t think you know who you stand for.” Let’s admit it. The lady has a point.
The cause isn’t hard to spot. The working class has changed and changed out of all recognition. Not least because lots of it has retired. It’s literally working no more. And amongst older voters, who will by the way be the majority of voters at the next election, attitudes to Labour aren’t good. Older voters are more sceptical about Europe, immigration and deficit finance than most Labour Party members. Older voters are looking for security. Oh, and that’s why in large part the Tory majority amongst older voters is a whopping two million votes; the single biggest most important fact in British politics.
But amongst working age people, the working class has split into four quite different groups; there’s the super-skilled who work at places like Rolls Royce or Jaguar Land Rover, up the road from me in Birmingham. There’s the self-employed who’ll outnumber public service workers by 2018/19. There’s the under-employed on zero hours contracts, often in retail, logistics or hospitality, and there’s the unemployed. What they have in common is there’s barely a mass workplace to be seen. The great industrial working class is gone. Yet a thirst for solidarity has not.
What’s fascinating about this great new age is the extraordinary way a sharing society is being reborn and reinvented. Look no further than the semantics of Facebook. We no longer ‘send’ stuff, we ‘share’ it. Places to cooperate are multiplying, from Kickstarter to Airbnb.
So, let’s not be sentimental. I’d be happier with a debate about the very essence of working class power we want to rejuvenate: surely this must be the force of collective action of behalf, as GDH Cole once said, “of the bottom dog.” But let’s not look back too long – let’s instead re-imagine collective action in the future and rethink how the institutions of our common life together might need to change.
For example, what does a NHS need to look like in a world of managing chronic disease but where you could give everyone an iWatch to help manage chronic health conditions? What would vocational education look like where we could pipe Open University-like courses through a MOOC to smartphones anywhere? How do we modernise the welfare state so we equip the self-employed with access to proper second pensions? And how do we restore a sense of the contributory principle while we’re at it. How so we transform public services for those with disabilities, both young and old, along with parents and carers? Any one who visits a primary school, as I do, several times a month comes away struck by the surge in numbers of young citizens with special education needs. Where are the new services for them? How do we empower with collective action a new generation of entrepreneurs who’ll create the amazing new jobs of the future? How do we equip our country with the world’s best science base to help us win in the new knowledge economy, by transforming the strength of the oldest public institutions in the country, aka universities?
At the core of Labour’s brand, our essence and our identity is the notion that we do things together. That’s what inspired the Chartists, the Rochdale Pioneers, the early trade unionists. For the same reason, Tony Blair’s rejuvenation of the community ideals had real cut through in the early 90s. We could all see how, for each of us to thrive, we needed public services repaired.
This is the timeless lesson of the past – and it is a lesson about a culture, about attitude. Take the culture of compassion and cooperation and throw it at the challenges of the future. That’s the fastest win to renew a practical politics, animated still by the spirit of the working class that gave us life. John Prescott used to call it traditional values in a modern setting. And he was right.
Liam Byrne is the MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill