When was the working class last politically lauded? Probably in the 1970s. It is extraordinary that a class composed of a majority of the population has, as it were, been airbrushed from the record. The political struggle is concentrated exclusively on the middle ground as though that is the only place where elections are won or lost. But it isn’t, for several reasons. One is the implicit assumption that the upper classes will vote heavily for the Tories and the lower classes will vote heavily for Labour, and therefore the contest is settled in the middle, is way off the mark.
The upper classes will mostly continue to regard the Tories as their natural home, but the working class won’t necessarily vote Labour unless they believe Labour genuinely represents them. Under Blair and Brown there was a huge loss of trust and confidence in Labour which is why the party lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, the vast majority of them from the classes D and E. Winning over Tory votes from the middle ground may be a bonus, but will never decisively settle an election unless Labour makes such huge concessions to Tory ideology as to almost lose its own identity (which is exactly what happened in the decade to 2010).
It is one of the paradoxes of British politics that Labour has so much to gain from cultivating the working class vote, yet from Blair’s time has ostentatiously declined to promote itself as the natural representative and champion of working class interests. In the last two decades Labour has allowed itself to be pulled on to Tory territory in a contest for the ‘aspirational classes’. This rather neglects the essential fact that a third of Britain has little or no chance of becoming aspirational, finding it hard instead merely to survive. Paying attention to their needs should be an integral part of Labour’s attraction. So what are their needs?
Overwhelmingly they need a job. That means dropping a failed economic policy that has kept 2.5 million on the dole for years and instead using public investment to kickstart a sustainable recovery with a clear objective of restoring full employment (less than 3% of the workforce jobless) within 5 years. They need decent housing they can afford. That means building at least 275,000 houses a year, including 50,000 a year for social low-cost housing, plus rent controls for the private sector where scarcity is pushing up prices.
They want security against surging utility costs which means stronger regulation or a restoration of public ownership where needed. They need fair and reasonable wages which means a say in the constraint of gross inequality within their own organisations. And they want protection against the abuse of corporate power, something which Ed Miliband is rightly beginning to offer, but which if it is to be genuinely effective requires the strengthening of the unions and bringing them into a genuine partnership at both nation al and company level.