The words of Aneurin Bevan – Labour hero, British hero – are worth reminding ourselves of from time to time. They remind us from whence we, the Labour movement, came, and of where we need to go; of a time when our party, still a ‘democratic socialist’ party of ‘solidarity’ according to the membership card, weren’t so afraid of the working class. It’s high time that we listened to Bevan. We need to talk about class.
Parliament, more than any time in the last half-century, has become an unrepresentative institution. Nobody should be surprised that over half of Conservative MPs were educated in fee-charging schools, nor that 23 of 29 Coalition cabinet ministers are millionaires. To put it bluntly, we expect it from that lot. If Labour are the party of democratic socialism and solidarity, they are the party of patronage and privilege.
No, more disconcerting is the dearth of working-class MPs on the Labour benches. In 1979, so the statistics tell us, around 40% of Labour MPs had partaken in some sort of manual or clerical work before entering parliament. In 2010, a depressing 10% was the figure.
Of course, nobody wants to go back to 1979 – lest we forget, this was the year in which Margaret Thatcher came to power, replacing one season’s worth of discontent with eleven years’ worth of hell. What we do want, however, and what the working class in particular desire, is a party that represents them. New Labour, led by the most unashamedly middle-class Labour leader in living memory, was not that party. Whether Ed Miliband’s party can be remains to be seen.
Simply talking the politics of class would be a start. Again, nobody wants class warfare. What we do want is for the Labour leadership to recognise that it is still class, perhaps more than any other factor, that determines our life chances (we are not, despite John Prescott’s neat New Labour dictum, ‘all middle-class now’).
Our party should be the one to do something about that. The clue’s in the name. Instead, we have airbrushed the word ‘class’ almost completely out of existence, replacing it with weasel words and phrases. ‘Squeezed middle’ is one. ‘Hard-working families’ is another.
Across the channel, things are much the same; Barack Obama, although considered to be some sort of foreign, commie dog by the rabid Republican right, makes reference to ‘middle-class families’ far more than the 46 million Americans living below the poverty line. The Democrats, however, do not profess to be a party of the urban poor. We do.
Labour has nothing to lose. We will not forgo electoral victory by reintroducing the word ‘class’ into the political lexicon, and we will certainly not diminish our prospects by increasing the intake of working-class MPs. Indeed, if anything, the above measures will strengthen Labour’s position; after all, of the millions of votes lost between 1997-2010, a significant chunk were the core voters – an apathetic workforce disillusioned with the party’s calamitous embrace of the Thatcherite, neoliberal consensus. As my old dad would say, of politicians both red and blue, ‘they’re all the same, the bloody lot of ‘em!’ It’s people like him whose hearts and minds Labour needs to capture once more.
Not every MP can be a Dennis Skinner or an Ian Lavery, nor can every Labour MP discuss the plight of the poor with the eloquence of an Aneurin Bevan. That, however, is no reason to ignore the working-classes altogether. Our party has done a great deal to help the vulnerable and victimised. We have more female and ethnic minority parliamentarians than ever before, and rightly so. When we see injustice, we speak out, we fight it. But Labour also needs to remember why it was formed and what it is for.
We are the party of the working class. We must start acting like it.