CHATHAM, ENGLAND - MAY 5: Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks to supporters alongside newly elected Labour Councillor Vince Maple, Chatham Central, on Chatham Pier on May 5, 2023 in Chatham, England. With 61 of the 230 councils counted and declared from yesterday's local elections, the Labour Party has won 653 seats, up 119. They have taken control of Stoke on Trent, Plymouth and Medway councils and increased their majorities in Telford and Ipswich. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

The “on behalf of ” Labour Party

It was founded as the party of working people, so why are Labour’s prospective MPs more middle-class than ever before?

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Ninety-nine years ago, in January 1924, Ramsay MacDonald, “bastard son of a Scottish farmgirl”, became Prime Minister, the first leader of the Labour Party to do so. Next year, Sir Keir Starmer may well mark the centenary by returning Labour to power.

Given the scale of the swing he requires, Starmer could find himself in a similar situation to his predecessor. Short of a parliamentary majority, MacDonald was only able to form his Labour government with the Westminster acquiescence of the Liberal Party. Back in 1924, few could have mistaken the party of the workers for that of the Liberals. 

Despite realising the potential for harnessing newly enfranchised working class votes, Gladstonian Liberal efforts to support trade union-backed coal miners and manual workers as candidates under Liberal auspices foundered. The high of twelve such “Lib-Lab” MPs in 1885 could not be sustained. Most local Liberal Associations proved reluctant to promote such candidates as their own. It was a fatal missed opportunity and in 1924 it ensured Labour’s eclipse of the Liberals.

Versions of this story are still told in Labour circles — often smugly, by those who feel comfortable claiming their inheritance in the political triumph of the proletariat. But such conclusions are now deeply misleading. The Parliamentary Labour Party in 2023 is far more like the Gladstonian Liberals it once replaced than it cares to admit. 

To modern Labour members it would be obvious that twelve Lib-Lab MPs were insufficient to represent the people who did the bulk of the country’s work. But Gladstone’s derisory number of working men MPs nevertheless outnumber Labour’s newly- selected working-class hopefuls by a factor of four. 

Since 2021, labour’s local parties have been choosing candidates for the 123 target seats they hope will propel them into government. Of those picked so far, the number that are from obviously working-class careers can be counted on one hand: a prison officer, a former care worker and, at a push, a retirement-aged former shop worker. 

Labour wasn’t always like this. Former Labour MP Reg Race, whose book Goodbye to the Working Class details the party’s declining relationship with what was its core vote, characterises the problem as one of constituency composition but also of Labour’s own apathy:

Constituencies had heavy concentrations of workers in industries like coal or steel, with many trade union branches affiliated to the local Party [but] the ability of unions to get their candidates selected has atrophied. Nothing has replaced it. This is a serious problem for the Labour Party, explicitly founded to get working men into Parliament. 

Labour used to be successful to that end. Many followed in Ramsay MacDonald’s footsteps. Nye Bevan, who left school at 14 to work in a mine and spent his twenties between unemployment and destitution, oversaw the development of the NHS. Ernest Bevin, who had made his living breaking stones and driving trucks, was a key figure in the founding of NATO.

Would these totemic figures of Labour history get past a party panel today? The parade of seemingly identikit lawyers, SpAds, consultants and former civil servants the party has lined up as candidates for its next term suggests not. 

According to “Closing The Gap”, a report by the IPPR think tank, the number of working class MPs in parliament has collapsed over the last 50 years. The career backgrounds of those who go into parliament are as narrow as they have been since the first World War. 

This has become more pronounced under every Labour leader since Harold Wilson. Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure, for all its internal talk about “the workers”, oversaw two elections where the proportion of Labour MPs taken from “instrumental” careers — political insiders in journalism, party officials, lobbyists and “brokerage” professions (read: barristers) — rose to more than 86 per cent of the new intake, while the number coming from blue- collar careers declined from one per cent to none.

Point out just how vanishingly few new Labour MPs will come from normal, relatable careers and watch the display of virtuosic mental gymnastics that results. How the definition of “working class” is stretched to the point of parody. A good place to start is the candidates being chosen.

If you’re serious about applying to be a Labour candidate for the 2024 general election, you will have spent several thousand pounds to have a creative agency film a glossy video presenting “your story”. These three-minute snapshots are intended to mark a potential candidate out from the crowd. Each follows a wellworn formula, to the effect that each besuited, red tie-wearing professional with nary a regional accent between them appears a clone of the other.

The formula runs thus: a candidate will talk about growing up, there’s slow motion footage of them looking at mantelpiece photographs of their school days. At some point we hear how “times were hard”, not for them as adults, but as a child. Then Thatcher — she was very bad wasn’t she? Then New Labour, they helped my local school buy more books, that was good. As an adult I (obviously) left this place as quickly as I could to build a career elsewhere, usually London. Now I am a barrister! Or a consultant! or a SpAd! Or perhaps I push pens for an NGO. 

I’ve had a great life full of success. So choose me. I’m coming back to the place that’s in my blood. But only if I get to be the MP, of course. Otherwise I’m staying in Zone 2.

One candidate decided to include his class credentials. Filmed poring over old family photographs, he said proudly, “My grandad grew up a miner’s son”. 

These pitches show what’s persuasive to the modern Labour selectorate; soft-rock-soundtracked, inoffensive stories of social mobility. Seldom heard are the details that would show a life that many relate to, especially those from areas that have seen two generations of post-industrial decline: “I voted leave.”; “I do not have a degree.”; “I earn below the average wage.”

More common is the kind of dazzling CV very few of us ever manage in life. “I am an international human rights lawyer who has worked in war-torn Africa.” “I am the CEO of a leading think tank.” “I advise governments on tackling global challenges such as hunger and preventing violent conflict.” 

Are Oxbridge or redbrick graduates who have occupied a succession of high-status careers, working class? It’s an awkward question that elicits awkward answers. For the sharp-elbowed climbers targeting their place in the modern Parliamentary Labour Party, the conception of class has become less a material concept and more of a haematological one. 

Yes, comes the answer: an upper-tax-bracket lawyer is often still working class. Maybe they were born in a council house, where class was baked into their memory 40 years ago. That can’t be unlearned. It is in their blood. The suggestion that it might not be a good thing that almost one in five of the party’s current selections comes from a high status legal career is met with derision. To overlook a lawyer for a brickie would be punishing success. Or even an affront to aspiration.

According to Dr Tim Bale’s Party Members Project, the average Labour member is an ABC1 earner in a senior public sector role. In fact, for all the party’s ongoing rhetoric of being for and of “the many” only 23 per cent of members fall into the C2/D/E bracket. “The many” are more likely to be found working in a job where they are managed by a Labour member.

Groups like these come with their own internal cultural idea of what merit is and looks like. They want “the best person for the job”. As Race says, “Labour Party members do not vote for people other than people like them”. That means councillors, lawyers and spAds, not bus drivers or cleaners.

It is a worrying standard for a socialist party

It is a worrying standard for a socialist party. Careers in law, media and politics that most Labour candidates are drawn from are some of the most middle- and upper-class-dominated in the UK, according to the Sutton Trust’s 2019 report “Elitist Britain”.

In earlier generations, when the precedent set by people such as Bevan and Bevin was still strong in cultural memory, the same reasoning around what constitutes a valuable life would have seemed ridiculous. That the ability and potential of a bricklayer, nurse, care worker or manual labourer was so obviously below that of a lifelong Special Advisor would be, if not offensive, outright anathema.

Still, Labour does have some level of institutional respect for people in “key worker” careers. The party has made an argument “on behalf of” working people many times since Starmer took over, especially during the pandemic. Key workers are heroes, they should be celebrated and paid more. No socialist could disagree, but the implicit subtext remains “just don’t ask us to make them MPs”. 

Julian Vaughan, an aslef-unionised train driver, was beaten in his race by a former LibDem candidate and Remain campaigner who works as a communications director. “I was well supported by the unions but still wasn’t selected, for those on the breadline or in shiftwork, without connections, it’s no surprise they don’t try.”

Samantha Townsend, a former teacher, was beaten to the nomination in working-class Bishop Auckland by a PhD-toting consultant with a background in international development lobbying. Samantha had been the beneficiary of Mother Red, a fundraising initiative set up by Stella Creasy that has raised at least £18,000 in donations to help mothers run for selection. 

But it has no means testing, handing out thousands to entrench the advantage of think tank directors, barristers, former shadow cabinet members and senior council figures. Candidates like Samantha are supported to fail, with commendable grace, at the selection hurdle.

Labour’s trade union donors do have a scheme that is intended to train working-class people to become MPs. Set up by the Trade Union Liaison Office, Angela Rayner is a graduate, but if it has produced a new Anglea Rayner for 2024, they haven’t made it past the membership. 

As Labour has become ever-more dominated by the middle classes and by public sector and NGO professionals, an emphasis on the changing shibboleths of identity has emerged and displaced class as the marker of an especially worthwhile candidacy, so schemes for diversifying parliament now focus on race and gender over class.

Policy talk, too, has moved away from utilitarian interventions to combat William Beveridge’s “five giants” of idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want, or detailed discussion on economic management. Instead, it is increasingly dominated by abstract intellectual sparring and academic jargon. Candidates compete to outmanoeuvre one another on the field of complex identity, race and gender issues using the correct manners and seven-syllable sociological terminology. 

Where the state is deployed, it’s with a mindset that is indicative of those pulling its levers: former charity sector and NGO workers who have stepped over an untrusted poor to take up their roles. Low wage employees in ever-more insecure work are given a de facto employer subsidy for wages, housing and childcare. Dignity, self-reliance and recognition of pay come second to a complex web of poverty-ameliorating handouts.

… the policy on offer is slim

For all the collective years of degrees, PhDs and political insidership possessed by Labour’s new elite cadre, the policy on offer is slim. There is little indication of a brake on the collapsing prospects that working people have experienced for a generation, and little sign of urgency from a parliamentary party simply waiting for its turn in power. 

The “On Behalf Of Labour” Party that will likely take office next year will be the least working class in its history. The inheritance of a hundred years has dwindled almost to nil. 

By the 1920s the Lib-Lab MPs had all vanished from parliament. Gladstone’s scheme had failed. Belatedly realising their displacement and marginalisation into third-party politics, leading Liberal politicians must have wondered what might have been if MacDonald and Labour’s other founders hadn’t been given the brush off. 

To ignore such talent was the Liberal Party’s undoing. A century later, perhaps the same frustration that drove MacDonald will again find an alternative outlet.

Or more worryingly, perhaps nobody will care. 

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