Labour must speak not only for organised labour

As predictable headlines follow Ed Miliband committing to speak at the TUC rally on March 26th, Rob Marchant takes a more detached look at how the relationships between Party, movement and workplace demographics interact.

As predictable headlines follow Ed Miliband committing to speak at the TUC rally on March 26th, Rob Marchant takes a more detached look at how the relationships between Party, movement and workplace demographics interact

Let’s not be daft – no-one sensible is saying that Labour is “in the pocket of the unions”; however, it is not a particularly wild claim that Labour’s two historic constituencies among the employed have been public sector workers – largely unionised – and the unionised private sector. New Labour’s genius for electoral success was, of course, its ability to fashion a broader church than Labour had ever before managed. “Post-New” Labour, however, is a different animal.

While Labour has been busy getting back those it lost to the left during those years, such as leftist Liberals, it seems not to have spent so much effort in re-establishing contact with those it lost to the right. One school of thought, of course, says that these people are negligible in number. But that seems unconvincing: the centre ground in politics is perennially important.

In any event, my contention is that much of Labour’s lost vote was taken from that other large demographic, private-sector workers from non-unionised workplaces – who nevertheless believed in public services; and that, although they are people who Labour really needs to keep, the party is disengaging from them in important ways.

Firstly, in Labour’s public utterances of late it has been quick to emphasise the limitations of the free market. Reasonable, but some will hear this as “we don’t like business any more”. When a party spends most of its 100-year history at loggerheads with business, it’s easy to see New Labour’s warmth towards it as a mere 10-year aberration. Unfair too, as Ed Miliband is hardly anti-business but, in Opposition, it’s often the noises that count, rather than the policies.

A small retrenchment can be perceived as a large one.

Next and surely counter-intuitively, during the period of New Labour government, unions ended up with more clout in the party than at the beginning. For example, union funding went from a low of 33% in 2002 to 82% in Q3 2010. Now, although some Tory conspiracy theorists might be surprised to learn that unions do not go around buying policy positions, it would also be hopelessly naïve to suggest that unions, with a generation of leaders seemingly more punchy than their predecessors, might not have more influence on the tone of Labour politics – and we must bear in mind that people outside the unionised sector may not relate to that tone.

Finally, Labour appears slightly obsessive on the issue of high pay, when the aspiration to “do well” is one of the things which attract people to the private sector. Whilst legitimate concerns exist about excessive pay distorting good management practice, the focus on high pay comes across as a populist response to public anger about the City – a very specific case – with a wink to Labour’s traditional supporters. But the message to private sector workers, most of whom don’t work in the City, is that their reasonable aspirations to wealth are disdained by Labour.

That said, does this all matter? Are non-unionised, private sector workers really the key to electoral success? Well, think about the following: the public sector has kept steady at just under 30% of total employment for most of the last three decades – but the proportion of unionised workers has dropped by roughly half since its peak in the late 70s. It is acknowledged by the TUC that the bulk of these losses have taken place in the private sector, deindustrialisation being one obvious cause.

So, a big part of the unionised private sector has gone: also the increasing “grey vote” as a proportion of the electorate lessens the impact of all working people at the ballot box. So, in the old days, Labour could practically win an election simply with the support of its two traditional demographics; in 2015, simply, it cannot. This is not to undervalue them as the core of the party’s support, but they’re simply not enough.

In short, little by little Labour seems to be disengaging from those private sector workers that it won over, although perhaps unwittingly. This disengagement matters, because Labour’s old constituency is no longer enough and it has picked off those who will support the party to the left already.

A couple of good opinion polls do not a summer make; Labour cannot just leave those to the right for David Cameron.

Rob Marchant is a management and communications consultant, blogger and eco-entrepreneur; he previously worked as a Labour party senior manager through the 2001 and 2005 general elections. Rob blogs at The Centre Left and his twitter handle is @Rob_Marchant.

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54 Responses to “Labour must speak not only for organised labour”

  1. Rob Marchant

    @oranjd: simple – a general election. It is convenient for them at the moment in terms of cutting the defecit and that they can blame it on us, but it is inconceivable that the Tories, a tax-cutting party, will go into the next election saying that we should keep the 50p band if elected. The Tories may even cut it before the election, to make the difference more pointed.

    So, if we are tied to maintaining it (and also to extending its scope as Balls implies), we will be dead meat on that one issue. Labour will put up tax, Tories will not.

    The fact is that we have lost the electorate’s trust we had on the economy and are now back in 1996 – the only way we will get elected is agreeing to stick to Tory tax projections for a couple of years so that people trust us again.

  2. Rob Marchant

    @Jeremy Corbyn:

    Sorry Jeremy, I have just found your comments here some time later and wanted to respond.

    In fact, I was not offering a comment on his attendance or not, the article is about ensuring that we have a broad base of support in the electorate and that we speak to their concerns. (I think John Rentoul may have slightly misunderstood me on this, but it’s not important.)

    However, since you ask, I think it is not a good idea. The real problem we have is twofold: (i) that we will risk looking like a party of protest, rather than a party of government-in-waiting; and probably more importantly (ii) that we have no control over what other people will say, or how the crowds will behave, at the event.

    On (i) we made this mistake a lot during the 1980s and it didn’t help us at all. I am not just talking about the Michael Foot era, but later with Neil Kinnock as well. The sad truth is that, in a media age, we have to be very careful about how we come across. You may think this superficial, but it’s the reality.

    On (ii), this is the real risk. If we have either union leaders, other speakers or the crowd saying or doing anything (remembering the last anti-cuts march where there was violence) which alienates the public, Ed will be tarred with the same brush. He can’t afford to be – he represents our aspirations to government, and they are too precious to risk.

    In short, where I think we disagree is that you are worrying about our display of loyalty to our traditional base. I am worrying about what we represent to the people whom we need to win over, as they are the key to our success.

  3. Dave Citizen

    Rob – is it any wonder that so many people are turned off politics when the problems, injustices and inequities that are staring them in the face are respun into some kind of topsy-turvy demonstration of the efficient workings of the status quo. Given the current state of the world and the particular difficulties Britain faces I think Ed Milliband is absolutely right to revisit basic principles and build a new vision for Labour rather than trying to recreate a Blair effect. Times have moved on Rob.

  4. james doran

    Rob, the Blair/Brown period didn’t just see an end to the union-party bonding, but actual *distancing* – it appeared that the party of labour did not want to appear organised, or even a party of labour. This wasn’t for the benefit of attracting “the public” or even swing voters, but to assuage the concerns of capital. But the fact is we’re not in 1996 – the global economy is in a totally different state, and as a consequence it’s unlikely there will be the strong recovery that took place during the 90s, especially as the coalition’s austerity rhetoric and policies are having the effect of dampening consumer and business confidence. The Labour Party is also in a completely different place, both politically and in terms of reputation. The Cold War is over, Labour in office was deferential rather than antagonistic towards capital – and in fact, the deference to finance capital is something that the Tories are now using against us opportunistically.

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