Tessa Jowell: To win back power we must stick to the centre ground

Class has never been less relevant to how people vote. We are a culturally more cohesive society than we have ever been. From Ikea to Ryanair to X Factor, our way of life is converging

Tuesday 04 January 2011 01:00

As we look towards the new year, there are two political lessons that Labour has drawn from the lost election. These are already driving local Labour activism across the country. The first is honesty with ourselves about the scale of the defeat we suffered and the mountain we must climb to reconnect with the country. The second is to understand why nobody won the election. Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour saw their share of the vote reduced. The Conservative Party was unable to win an outright majority.

Strategists have pored over data of how different social classes voted and tried to work out what this means for the Labour Party. Some say that we've lost too many "C2s". Others point out the large number of "DEs" that we have lost.

This is not an analysis which is now relevant to how people see themselves. The way in which people define their own interests and those of their families defies the classification of psephologists. There is a new coalition emerging in Britain today and no party has come to grips with it. That in turn creates the new risk that the debate passes the public by as no one thinks we are talking about him or her.

As research from Peter Kellner has shown, class has never been less relevant to how people vote. In 1970, 56 per cent of working-class voters backed Labour, compared with just 22 per cent of middle-class voters – a difference of 34 points. This year, that gap has narrowed to just six points: 27 per cent of middle-class voters backed Labour, compared with 33 per cent of working-class voters. People no longer have tribal affiliations – as more than 70 per cent of them do not consider themselves supporters of any one political party. Whether you qualify as working class or middle class according to the traditional A to E classification, we are a culturally more cohesive society than we have ever been before.

According to the 2009 British Social Attitudes Survey, more than 75 per cent of people identified themselves as being somewhere in the middle of society. This majority are coping with their finances, but do not feel comfortable. Money obviously matters, but in so many aspects of our lives our way of life is converging. We buy our furniture at Ikea, travel with Ryanair and watch X Factor at the weekend, and increasingly we rely on grandparents for childcare.

This 21st-century version of the progressive centre is comprised of people who do not simply vote out of economic interest, but according to their judgement of who offers them the best chance of building a better life. This new pragmatism has taken political parties beyond the ideological or tribal loyalty that they relied on to build majorities in the past. So our politics has to find a way to talk about people in the way that they see themselves, which is increasingly not defined by the job that they do but the life that they lead.

That is why under the radar and away from the headlines our new leader, MPs and activists swelled by 50,000 new members are engaged in thousands of conversations understanding better people's expectations, hopes and fears. Turning local Labour parties into organisations for community action, creating good with and for local people. In my own south London constituency community action days are seeing Labour party members with local residents planting bulbs for spring, clearing unsightly ground, helping to set up a homework club, engaging young people and much more. The bigger political argument is more convincing when it is born of deeds, not just words. We need to recognise that the raucous politics of Westminster is a distant noise to most people.

Given the scale of the challenge, but also the prize, we are right to take time in opposition to get to know and to understand this new coalition of voters, and why we were rejected by them at the election. But also governments change the country. We did, over 13 years, and this Coalition will, too, over the next four years.

This is why Ed Miliband is entirely right not to hurry into spelling out a full policy platform. We need to have the self-confidence in opposition to reflect openly and think aloud, and as we have already begun to do, drawing the public into the conversation.

There are five principles that I think should guide that conversation:

One. We need to have the humility to understand why people vote Conservative. How we relate and conduct our politics can often be as important as the ideas that we offer. Just attacking the Government is not enough. We must not be afraid to look across political parties to see what we can learn.

Two. Stick resolutely to the centre ground. In an era where people no longer see politics through an ideological prism, that is where they want their politicians to be.

Three. We need to realign what we mean by fairness with how our voters define fairness. By the end of our time in government, only 24 per cent of people felt that helping "ordinary working families" was among our top priorities, despite 77 per cent of people thinking that it should be.

Four. Understand that you can't will communities, but you can create or reshape institutions to make them possible. Outward-looking schools, tenant-run housing estates and community-led health services are all examples of how public investment can engage people and in so doing build social capital.

Five. We still have a mandate in many parts of the country, and the opportunity to win more over the course of the next few years. We may have lost the general election last May, but won 17 local councils in different parts of the country. Where Labour is in government, we will show that we are rooting ourselves in the way the new coalition of voters in Britain today are now living their lives.

These are ways for Labour to start the new year with a fresh sense of purpose – building new understanding, ideas and policies in tandem with the people whose trust and confidence we will work to earn. This is beyond the tired clichés exhorting new politics. This is how you do it in practice.

Tessa Jowell is MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and shadow Minister for the Olympics. She was a member of the Cabinet in the two most recent Labour governments.

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