With UK general election just 7 weeks away and the two major parties neck and neck, I have been consuming a lot of political media. While doing this, a question has come to me:
“Who does the Labour Party Represent?”, and the follow on question, “Does the Labour Party know the answer?”
Firstly we had John Cruddas (http://bit.ly/1BZKyI2), Labour’s policy co-ordinator, said the 115-year old party could simply “disintegrate in real time”.
Then there have been three interesting articles in The Guardian in the last couple of days. First from Rachel Reeves, the Shadow work and pensions secretary (http://bit.ly/1BZrQjV), in which she stated “Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.”. Her position (which should be read beyond that simple quote) by party activist Emma Burnell (http://bit.ly/1Euz5NZ) the following day, the original article having garnered a lot of comment. Finally, this morning, campaigner Jack Monroe wrote (http://bit.ly/1BZt8LN) how she had left the Labour and joined the Green Party due to their more left-leaning policies.
At the most basic historical level, Ms Reeves is correct; the Labour Party was established by the Trade Union movement to represent the interests or working people in Parliament. So is she correct in her objective?
I personally do not believe it represents the broader working class anymore due to the near elimination of Trade Union membership in the private sector (only 14.4% – 2.6m people), while the strong position of the Trade Unions in the public sector (55.4% – 3.8m people) means Labour has become increasingly a vehicle and voice for those in the public sector. Within those private sector union membership figures, it also needs to be recognised that many of employers where membership numbers are strong are former nationalised businesses such as utilities, mail and railways where a public service ethos remains in place. This is not meant as either a positive or negative analysis, merely that any organisation reflects the the make-up of its membership. It is also clear from the background of many Labour MPs, councilors and activists that it has become the vehicle and voice for many of those engaged in the charitable and campaigning sectors.
From a perspective of attracting significant further voters beyond that core, the comments of Ms Reeves an Ms Burnell on one side and Ms Monroe on the other reflect the two paths available: 1) those workers in the private sector, including the self-employed, who are receiving little or no benefits, but have no other means of support beyond their wage; or, 2) those who may work or not, but who rely primarily on support through the benefit system.
In recent history, certainly during the Blair and Brown administrations, Labour successfully appealed to both these groups, but in 2010, it lost the support of group (1). Its difficulty in appealing to both groups is that the public purse will not stretch to support both. If you have policies that appeal to group (2), you have no option but to increase taxes on group (1); it is economic illiteracy to think that all the money needed to reverse public sector austerity can come from “the rich” (normally defined as anybody earning 20%+ than the person saying the words “the rich”) alone; Denis Healy tried that in the 1970s and it doesn’t work. Those in group (1) generally feel they are paying enough of a burden already, so do not wish to pay more to reverse austerity on group (2).
At the moment Labour appear to be trying to appeal to both groups by fudging that difficult position, but the closer we get to the election, I think they will have to lean one way of the other. My own view would be that Ms Reeves is right, and Labour needs to get back to being a party of the broad working class (i.e. those who need to work rather than having their own capital) rather than being, as it increasingly is, a pressure group for the public sector and public services. Otherwise Mr Cruddas may be right.