Throughout the 2015 general election, all through the mayoral contests, in the build up to the EU referendum, and now intertwined with our leadership contest is one key argument or question – how do we reconnect with the working classes? This for me poses a more important question, one that we need to answer first and foremost. Who are the working classes?
It seems, now more than ever that we are trying to appeal to a demographic that no longer exists, with its remnants only equating to a small percentage of the total electorate. Everyone seems to have a different notion of what being working class means. The left of the party are still romanticising a class that no longer exists, built on an industrial solidarity that could previously be found down the pits, at the docks, and in the factories. The right look at the working classes through similarly tinted lenses, the small business owners and young entrepreneurs that operate comfortably in capitalist society.
The class system has shifted and in my opinion classic distinctions are no longer relevant, yet the Labour Party doesn’t seem to be catching on. This constant tug of war between the left and right of the party has created a chasm in the centre ground that is fast filling up with people that feel unrepresented… Working class people.
A good example of the flaw in the left’s view is Dagenham Ford. In the 1960s they employed in excess of 50,000 people, now they employ approx. 4,000 people – those 46,000 people that lost their jobs over the years either struggled to find work or went into other roles, with the decline of British industry most factory workers went on to work in service roles, shop floor, call centres etc. Two or three generations down the line the culture of solidarity and comradery of the factory is all but gone, and most now self-identify as middle class.
This is the story up and down the country. There is also the other side, the two or three lost generations that didn’t find a future in other positions and again do not now identify as working class. These are the communities that were decimated by the demise of British mining, the communities that have had no choice but to fall back into the safety net of the state. As a party we are yet to provide hope in these areas. Constantly blaming Maggie Thatcher is all well and good, but what are we going to do to fix it? Angry rhetoric can secure votes, but in the end it cannot secure a future for these people.
How do we define working class in the modern world? I think they have dominated the centre ground, the area that we as a party seem to have abandoned. Shop workers, call centre operators, cleaners, chefs, waiting staff, council staff, teachers etc. These are the working class of today yet we don’t seem to be addressing any of their needs. I have said it time and time again; left, right, old, new, and blue. Why do we label and narrow our politics? We should be more pragmatic and employ policy that works for everyone, and that means embracing policy from all facets of our party.
Brexit also has a place in this debate. Unfortunately the Labour Party failed to address the situation appropriately and now we have seen a resurgence of the political far right, if we had put forward a strong democratic argument to leave we could have cut UKIP out of the debate. As a party, for the last 20 years we have allowed the issue of immigration to fester and now that it is at its worse we are refusing to acknowledge it for fear of having the discussion.
This attitude is decimating our vote in traditional working class areas, by not discussing these issues we open the door and set the table for UKIP. When I told someone the other week that the residents of Dagenham and Rainham are concerned about immigration, I was told that what they are really concerned about is infrastructure, hospitals, schools, housing etc. NO. What they are concerned about is immigration, and in many cases the impact it is having, both positive and negative on local communities in more deprived areas. The country is screaming at us, and we are changing the subject to things we feel more comfortable talking about.
The majority of leave voters were not far right, or far left. They have been sat in the middle of the pitch jumping up and down for 20 years trying to get our attention. On June 23rd we gave them flare guns and they used them. Will we listen?
In summary; we aren’t best placed to negotiate post-Brexit policy as our party leaders (MPs) don’t know who they are negotiating for or what they want, and some are calling for a second referendum… Because we haven’t quite alienated 52 per cent of the electorate enough yet. No one knows who is working class and who isn’t and therefore doesn’t have any idea how to represent them; and Theresa May is quoting Miliband policy, duping our national centre ground vote whilst we have our attention firmly on ourselves.
The bottom line is that the Labour Party needs reinvention. We need to shift into the centre without abandoning the left or the right, because it is our broad shoulders that make us strong.
Andrew Achilleos – Chair and Campaign Organiser for Dagenham & Rainham CLP