Whatever happened to the Labour Party?

These days the people Labour exists to represent work in shops, call centres and offices rather than factories and mines. But they need a voice now more than ever

Share

What is Labour for? If you could pay a visit back to 1899, a railway signalman from Doncaster called Thomas R Steels would certainly have been able to answer. Exasperated at the lack of a political voice for working people while the wealthy had the Tories and Liberals to stand their corner, he drafted a resolution for his local union branch. It called on the Trade Union Congress to assemble a conference with the support “of all the cooperative, socialistic, trade union and other working-class organisations” to look at how it could win “a better representation of the interests of labour in the House of Commons”.

 It was a controversial idea. The first socialist MP, Keir Hardie, had only been elected a few years ago; as he entered Parliament for the first time, a policeman eyed his working-class clothes and asked him if he was working on the roof. “No, on the floor,” he answered. Many on the left felt the best bet for working-class people was to piggyback on the Liberals, forcing them to introduce social reforms. But the TUC approved Steels’ motion – and a few years later, the Labour Party was born.

As Labour delegates gather in Manchester, they might struggle to see the relevance of Steels. Britain has changed beyond recognition: peering out of their hotel windows, they can see that many of the industrial warehouses of Steels’ time are now luxury penthouses. But while the people Labour exists to represent today work in shops, call centres and offices rather than factories, mines and docks, they still need a voice. By the end of this government – the most naked government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich since Steels was alive – they are projected to be poorer than at the turn of the 21st-century. If Labour cannot champion their interests now, of all times, it may as well sing “ The Red Flag” for the last time, and go home.

Ed Miliband is often derided for his wonky manner, but it's just one symptom of a problem with the whole political establishment

When the Tories gather next week, they can feel assured they have a clear vision: to drive back the state as far as possible. How many Labour delegates feel confident their party has an equally compelling vision? The never-ending economic crisis is often called the Great Recession, but the Great Reverse is a more accurate description: the stripping away of a welfare state that Labour built. But even as its legacy is dismantled, Labour’s leadership remains impotent or – even worse – complicit.

Austerity has sucked growth out of the economy, sending borrowing – Osborne’s key test – surging. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has compared the Government’s approach to “a medieval doctor bleeding his patient, observing that the patient is getting sicker, not better, and deciding that this calls for even more bleeding”. If there is a time for Labour to present a coherent alternative, it is now. Instead, Ed Balls has promised the next Labour government will “be ruthless” about public spending, after pledging earlier this year that it was “going to have to keep all these cuts”.

The Government has imposed a pay freeze on public-sector workers that – given the cost of living – amounts to a substantial pay cut. As well as many nurses and teachers facing a drop in real income of 16 per cent by the next election, it is helping to suck desperately needed demand out of the economy. Scandalously, Labour’s leaders have lined up behind it.

In part, the Labour leadership has not come to terms with why it lost the election. New Labour strategy was based on keeping so-called “Middle Britain” on-board, which didn’t mean those living on the median annual income of £21,000, but affluent types living in leafy suburbs. But while five million voters abandoned Labour in its 13 years in power, the Tories only won a million more. According to Ipsos-Mori, there was only a 5 point drop in support from middle-class professionals; among skilled workers, it was a 21 point drop. If Labour can’t win back these working-class voters, it will never win another general election.

Labour could bring down welfare spending without cuts that destroy lives

 Part of the problem is that the Party leadership is not representative of the people it exists to champion. Ed Miliband is often derided for his wonky manner, but it’s just one symptom of a problem with the whole political establishment: full of politicos who have never worked outside the Westminster bubble.

 But in the here and now, Labour must offer a coherent alternative that defends those it was founded to represent. A motion from Unite calls for the RBS and Lloyds/TSB to be properly nationalised and transformed into a public investment bank. Such a bank could be linked to a new industrial strategy, building a renewable energy sector and  could create hundreds of thousands of “green-collar” jobs.

 Labour could bring down welfare spending without cuts that destroy lives: £21bn of taxpayers’ money is wasted on housing benefit, lining the pockets of landlords charging extortionate rents. The money could be used to build modern council housing, creating jobs, stimulating the economy, and bringing down the 5 million-strong social-housing waiting list. A living wage could reduce the billions spent on tax credits. And rather than focusing on benefit fraud – worth £1.2bn a year, or less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – Labour could launch a clampdown on the £25bn lost through tax avoidance by the rich.

 It would be naïve to expect the Labour leadership to do this off its own back. I’m working with a new trade-union-backed think-tank, Class, bringing together economists and academics to flesh out an alternative. But above all, it must come from pressure from below. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said the 19th-century African-American statesman Frederick Douglass. “It never did and it never will.” Steels is long dead, but his dream of a party that champions working people lives on. But it must be fought for.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Human rights need not come before development

Marta Foresti
‘Would Gary Lineker depart if his pay were halved, and would it affect the quality of MoTD?’  

BBC Me – no Archers, and no Fiona Bruce

DJ Taylor
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit