How Labour can woo back working class voters

It isn't enough to promise only to 'listen' to working class concerns.

It isn’t enough to promise only to ‘listen’ to working class concerns

The idea of a ‘core’ Labour vote is increasingly being called into question by influential party members. “The truth is that the white working class are not Labour’s base any more,” wrote John Mcternan, a former special advisor to Tony Blair, in the FT (£) on Sunday.

Not everyone agrees, however, with Labour List columnist Luke Akehurst branding the idea “absurd”.

On this I agree with Luke. Not only is it a poor electoral strategy to give up on white working class voters, but it also risks opening the door to parties of the radical and far-right: if Labour stops caring about so-called ‘left behind’ voters, they will become even more vulnerable to the false promises and anti-politics message of the populists.

But keeping hold of a dwindling working class base requires a specific approach. It isn’t enough to promise only to ‘listen to their concerns’. But nor, of course, should politicians pander to the most reactionary elements in that community. It’s about striking a balance between pragmatism and radicalism. But then, politics is always a bit like that.

Here, then, are a few ideas to woo back Labour’s increasingly despondent core vote.

Free movement has to go with trade unionism

There are two arguments for free movement: the liberal argument and the neo-liberal argument. This isn’t just a self-indulgent play on words. The former is a principled argument which emphasises freedom whereas the second is primarily concerned with a limitless supply of cheap and un-unionised labour for big business. It’s perfectly possible for a socialist or social democrat to support free movement, but that must go hand in hand with work to unionise migrants and enforce the minimum wage.

Like it or not, there is some evidence that the free movement of people has a negative impact on those at the lower end of the labour market (at the same time it tends to benefit those at the top). The impact is small, however, and can easily be offset by a strong labour movement; and if that isn’t what the Labour party is for, we may as well pack up and go home now. If this sort of thing doesn’t concern you, then perhaps it’s worth questioning whether the ‘Labour’ Party is really the right option for you.

Immigration yes, but also integration

As the think tank British Future put it when doing focus group work on integration: “there was strong agreement…about what the essential foundations of integration are: respect for the law; the ability to speak English; and the desire to contribute and to work were all seen as obvious and common sense requirements, in the realm of personal behaviour.”

Rather than viewing this as an insurmountable obstacle for the left, Labour should look at it as a challenge that the party can meet. Ed Miliband has already spoken about his desire to make sure that migrants working on the frontline of the public sector can speak English, and he should continue to do so. This isn’t ‘dog whistle’ politics. Provided services for those looking to learn English are properly funded, this is something that progressives should welcome: why would you not want to boost the chances of a migrant getting a good job which, invariably, will require decent English?

Again there is a fine line to tread here, but as we’ve seen from the rise of UKIP, it isn’t enough to ignore these things and hope they’ll go away. Nigel Farage was roundly mocked for claiming that he felt uncomfortable on a train because no one was speaking English. I don’t feel like that, and I suspect most readers of this article don’t; but unfortunate as it may be, I suspect if questioned a majority of British people would agree with Farage to some extent. Let’s turn that into something positive and help migrants to learn English, if only for the opportunities it will open up for them.

Behave like socialists and social democrats

Rather than pretending that we are simply another liberal party, we should remember that we’re a party of socialists, social democrats as well as liberals. Socialist ideas have understandably been going through something of a crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and social democracy is still grappling with the best way to respond to the Thatcherite settlement of the 1980s.

That said, it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bath water: capitalism is very good at creating wealth but woeful at distributing it equitably. This is why the left will always be relevant.

Any socialist/social democratic offering to blue collar voters would include: living wage legislation, better security for renters, well-funded training and apprenticeships for school leavers, a transport system that’s affordable (nationalise the railways), a welfare system that encourages work (for those who are able to work) and free childcare for pre-schoolers.

Ed Miliband has made inroads on these policy areas already; the problem seems to be communication but also persuading the public that government can actually make a difference again. And that perhaps will be the hardest part: overcoming the fatalism engendered by years of small government rhetoric. Government can make a difference, but it needs to be smart government rather than just big government.

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