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Re-engaging with the alienated “untouchables”

proud to be working classThe Labour campaign continues to make good progress whilst the Tories lurch from one failed artifice after another, and Ed Miliband is increasingly taking command with growing confidence. The election has nevertheless drawn attention to a disturbing penumbra of alienation from the whole process.

In poor white working class areas the number of households who say they never vote/haven’t made up their minds/believe there’s no point in voting because nothing changes or they’re all the same anyway, is alarmingly high. Of course there has always been a substratum of the population who felt and talked like that, but it has grown uncomfortably over the last 5 years. In a sense these patches of territory in England begin to resemble what has happened on a broader scale in Scotland. They feel they have regularly voted for Labour in the past, but it seems to make no difference because nothing changes (however unfair this judgement might be). This is not something that Labour can or should neglect: why has this happened and what needs to be done to regain these voters from their sense of abandonment?

There are three main reasons for this phenomenon:

One is the Blairite embrace of the Thatcherite ideology of deregulation, privatisation, inequality, welfare cutbacks, and suppression of the unions, as a result of which the economic experience of the under-class was little different under Labour compared with the Tories.

A second reason is that they’re utterly ‘pissed off’ (as they will tell you) by being made the butt of endless austerity. This is the section in society that has suffered the degradation of being sanctioned – they can’t get a job and then find their unemployment benefit is arbitrarily cut off for 4 weeks for trivial infringements or for reasons they’re never told. There were according to DWP figures 900,000 them sanctioned last year. This is the section in society which is humiliated by having to go to food-banks to survive. And this is the section of society that is constantly vilified by Tory propaganda dripping with malice, contempt and antagonism towards them as ‘shirkers’, ‘layabouts’ and ‘spongers’.

The third reason is that the Labour party has changed drastically over the last 40 years from being the champion of the working class (which, let us not forget, remains a majority of the population) to being perceived as a narrow, metropolitan, inbred elite. To be truly representative, half of the PLP should be working class; in fact less than 10% are. The party has been hijacked by the ambitious, graduate, careerist middle class. People on poor, white, working class estates simply don’t connect with them, nor vice-versa.

Labour cannot afford to lose this sizeable voting (or rather non-voting) base either for electoral, political or moral reasons. Regaining it will require radically different policies in government, a PLP with very many more working class MPs, and a conscientious and sustained effort over the next 5 years to bring this disenfranchised sub-class back into the mainstream.

10 Comments

  1. Barry Ewart says:

    Good points Michael.
    It could be argued Labour even before New Labour were top down and paternalistic.
    But it was the middleclass SDP coup of New Labour that seriously neglected or took working class communities for granted and left a vacuum which for a time the vile far right tried to fill.
    The white working class are there and I should know I lived mainly on inner- city council estates mainly all my life and coming from a white working class background it was higher education that freed me from poverty.
    Class to an extent has changed a bit and we no longer have the mass industrial working class of the 60’s which is why I am happy to use the term working people (all those who have to sell their labour to live) but I use it in an inclusive way.
    So this poor working class (black andwhite) are vilified in the media and by Tory Ministers, those in work are set against those on welfare (distracting people from tax cuts for millionaires who are distant from most people lives) and of course we now have established citizens set against newcomers – classic divide and rule whilst austerity is used to pursue the true Tory and Lib Dem Neo-Liberal agenda of cheap labour.
    So what is to be done to give the remaining white (and poor black) working class some hope?
    The first thing I would do is announce that we will compensate all those who have suffered under the bedroom tax.
    Rent controls in the private rental sector and better security of tenure plus redesign ouncil estates in consultation with residents to green them up with parks and community amenities.
    Have decent welfare and scrap sancrtions and work capability tests – we should treat citizens with respect.
    We should have a living wage.
    Free public transport to help the environment and the transport poor.
    Public ownership of utilities and have community dividends like the Coop Divi so people could take the money or it could be offset against bills to address fuel poverty (they would also feel these industries were theirs).
    Labour membership should be on a sliding scale – if you are low waged a few quid etc.
    2 working class candidates on every Parliamentary shortlist (Registrar General social scales 3-6 based on occupation of parent/s) – ideally they would be democratic socialists!
    Community development strategies for towns and cities based on the radical adult education ideas of Paulo Freire to empower people as citizens and working people work out for themselves who has the power.
    In education Democratic Schools – governers elected whole community and scrap tests and have more in course assessment – exams are elaborate memory tests and all of the tests and judgments purely on exams make some people feel special and a significant number feel failures (some carry this with them for life).
    We should also promote trade unionism and for the unwaged encourage them to join Unite Community branches (is 50p a week) but people are suddenly not alone & isolated if they combine!
    Political parties like Labour should be about empowering working people, we should also be grassroots, bottom up, participatory (could give Conference back to members) – in short we should offer and discuss ideas like I do but be facilitators for working people plus work with sister parties in every country so working people everywhere are fighting for the same things at the same time!
    Yours in solidarity!

  2. Barry Ewart says:

    Plus build many new affordable homes and refurbish empty homes to rent and buy plus change the mortgage system so buy 50% property and get 120 year lease – we should not restrict the the urban space and choice of working people – we need a better urban space for working people!

  3. David Pavett says:

    “Ed Miliband is increasingly taking command with growing confidence.”

    I would really like to know what he is taking charge of and what is he confident about? It the Shadow Cabinet less full of right-wingers who would prefer to have one of their own in his place? Has the Party any the less been drawn to argue its economic case in terms determined by the Tories? Has it decided to break with Gove’s neo-liberal restructuring of the English school system? Has Labour changed its stance on Trident renewal? ….

    And is Ed Miliband confident about not having a massive cull of his Scottish MPs?

    Feelings of political alienation are not confined to Labour’s once traditional support. Many people, including party member, will turn out to vote but I will do so with no enthusiasm. Many even even feel a sense of dispair about the Party and its direction of travel. And how could they feel otherwise when people like Tristram Hunt, Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves are touted as possible future leaders.

    We do not have to hype ourselves up to imagine that things are other than they are in order to work for change of government. We know that broad social and economic trends have remained the same under Labour and Tory governments for the last 40 or so years. Is there a reason to think that is about to change? Have Labour’s leaders decided that capitalism, even corporate capitalism is not the final stage of economic organisation?

    Or should we recognise that a Labour government would take of the rougher edges off Tory economic policy, as Ha-Joon Chang puts it, while continuing in broadly the same direction?

    P.S. The demand for the break up of the big banks did not make it into the manifesto. The passage on TTIP/ISDS looks like a step backwards from the seemingly clear opposition of Labour MEPs to ISDS of a few weeks ago.

  4. Robert says:

    Michael and a the others have been told no more moaning , no more attacking the geek, lets get together and start talking good things.

    I was just starting to go through the process of signing up to vote this afternoon and I stopped and thought who are you going to vote for , whom is the one party that at least will give you some hope.

    I’ve been in labour going way back 1963 at thirteen, but why and what for labour decided the only principle was to win to be in power for the sake of power.

    I did sign my grandsons to vote and my wife said she wants to vote so I sent them off but did not put my self forward, for the first time in my life I did not register .

    Being disabled whom do I vote for Labour and Reeves labour is the party of working people, well ok fine, Plaid are all about speaking Welsh in School only the Green are a poor copy of labour 60 years ago.

    I cannot be bothered.

    1. Matty says:

      I find this difficult to believe Robert – how come you weren’t on the electoral register already?

  5. David Pavett says:

    It seems to me that Aditya Chakrabortty describes things as they are in this Guardian article .

    1. Robert says:

      Yep very good he sums it up about perfectly

  6. David says:

    In Australia (where I’m in involved in the ALP Socialist Left) we have compulsory voting, precisely to prevent this sort of demographic misrepresentation. Of course, the poor and deprived are less likely to vote in a voluntary system – which is why we obligate everyone to vote. The alternative would be that a sizeable interest group have less representation in Parliament than they would be entitled to.

    I am so glad I live in a system where we never have to bother on ‘turnout’ and instead the whole campaign is about winning over voters on policy issues.

    1. Robert says:

      Politician are scared stiff of doing that, in case people go to one of the other parties, right now labour and the Tories are not getting the backing of the people. Look at how many labour voters labour have lost.

  7. Henry says:

    I have a radical policy idea for Labour and it’s very much to do with Left Future’s remit on greater democratic oversight within the party. I call it the “Just Bloody Ask Them” policy. You know when the local council resurfaces a road that was already flat just to look like they’re doing something? That would fall under the: “Should have bloody asked if people wanted it” policy. You know when your government of the day declares war on a foreign state on the other side of the world? Again: “Should have bloody asked if people wanted it” policy applies. If you want to know how to re-enfranchise and represent the white working poor, then you could begin your journey by, I don’t know? Just bloody asking them?

    For me I *would* vote for Labour if they made the British education system second to none on the international stage again (yes there was once a time). But this would involve undoing Labour’s policy over the last 30 years of allowing everyone to attain qualifications by devaluing them to the point that they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. We have a generation that struggles with reading, writing and arithmatics more so than their parents. A generation robbed not just of money, but of intellect and health, and it was done from right under Labour’s however many years of custodianship. That betrayal is worse than the Lib Dems and that’s why I don’t trust them as far as I can spit.

    Labour’s “do-goodery” from making university “accessible” through to increasing teacher wages has compounded rather than redressed the problems within our education system. Nowadays you have dozens of people with degrees competing for jobs. Not even specialist jobs. And you pretty much need some qualification or other just to sweep floors. Yes it’s nice that teachers are at least paid well, but education quality is a problem of culture, not a problem of money.

    These ideologically driven for-your-own-goodisms, like putting all students on a big database (and then selling my infomation without my approval) have thoroughly mugged a generation. Great though it may have been in theory it was utterly ruinous in practice, and the only thing that Labour have got going for them now is that their main opponents are threatening to mug us even more.

    I would gladly sacrifice the NHS, the state security budget, and my right arm to rectify this. I might not be representative of the electorate in saying that, but my view is that if you fix this then the economy and the national health service will follow. Because the people whose dreams don’t die within the walls of our education system can later go on to become happy, healthy, internationally competitive members of the work force.

    I suppose I’ve gone off topic from earlier but I’ll say this: If you want to engage with the white working poor then start talking with them and start early. Don’t wait until they’ve got a house and kids to engage with them. Start when they are young.

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