“I can say with certainty that ‘getting the band back together’ & trying to emulate New Labour simply will not work.”Ian Lavery MP.
Labour suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Tories in 2019 losing the very working-class communities where we were born as a party. Whilst there has been a meagre upswing in our polling position, the figures behind the headline tell a sorry tale about our position in the places Labour held for decades.
As Jon Trickett, Laura Smith and I have argued for some time the Labour Party has simply lost touch with working class communities. As a professional political class took over the institutions of the party three decades ago, inside Labour a shift took place and in too many instances our elected politicians were no longer representative of the communities that they served. An almost authoritarian level of social liberalism pervaded our party. But the consequences at the time were near non-existent.
That was in part because the New Labour machine tapped into a wildly successful electoral project that was built on the premise that the working-class backbone of the Labour vote had nowhere else to go. But as always short-term gain is built on sand. As the optimism of the 90’s and 2000’s gave way to cynicism, those working people who had felt ignored and even ridiculed by their party begun to stay at home and as time went on if they did come out to vote, it wasn’t for us.
As the party flounders seeking solutions to its current woes, I can say with certainty that “getting the band back together” and trying to emulate New Labour simply will not work. Neither will the current strategy based on following focus groups and repeating confusing messaging. It is Labour’s job to articulate an easily understood vision of a better future based on the principles on which our party was founded, and we need to make people believe we can deliver it.
In 2017 we ended up only a few thousand votes away from a fundamental break with a system which for too many has caused hardship. That the positive aspects of that campaign should never be forgotten is one thing and something that has been extensively covered. But as a party member and elected representative for decades it concerns me greatly that it could be decades until we see a Labour government again. So many of our traditional voters who for so long had not bothered came out to support us, to back a message of hope and to put their trust in us, perhaps one last time. I suspect many will be looking now and wondering what happened.
There is no easy way forward for Labour. Rebuilding long held bonds, severed by a feeling of betrayal over Brexit, will not be an easy task. Standing shoulder to shoulder with workers and communities in their struggles through deep roots is the way we must do this. But there is something else Labour must take seriously.
Whilst in recent decades our party has been at the forefront of diversifying Parliament, fewer and fewer of our senior politicians come from a working-class background with a few notable exceptions. This is a huge issue if we ever again hope to form a government. Labour cannot represent the country it seeks to lead without being representative of it. Winning trust back amongst these voters means selecting deep-rooted candidates with a track record of standing up for their communities. Being the drop off point of a conveyor belt full of “professional” politicians is simply not an option.
But there is more to it that just that. Labour representatives cannot focus group their way to a better society. We need people with the heart and instincts that can only come from the bitter sting of personal experience. Parliament is desperately short of people who have claimed benefits, gone through life with disabilities or struggled day in day out in bad employment. This past year we have seen key workers carry the country on their backs, yet the green benches are sadly lacking in them too. We desperately need people with this experience to rebuild our country.
Labour has a history of promoting positive discrimination and it has an even longer history of championing the cause of working people. It is time that we remember our roots and embrace protected places for working class candidates throughout of our movement. If we do not trust in the power of people from our heartlands, why should they ever again put their trust in us?
- Ian Lavery is one of a number of Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs who have a regular column on Labour Outlook, alongside Apsana Begum, Richard Burgon, Rebecca Long Bailey, John McDonnell, Kate Osborne, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Jon Trickett, and Claudia Webbe.