The future of the left since 1884

Recruiting to win

Labour’s MPs do not have strong enough ties with a broad base of voters who work in the private sector - but a better selection process can remedy this. Sonny Leong discusses.


Long read

To form a majority government in the next general election Labour will need to win at least 124 parliamentary seats. The scale of the task ahead is daunting, but at least it is clear. Keir Starmer faces several immediate challenges as he rebuilds Labour’s reputation for it to be regarded as a credible party of government in the eyes of the public after our worst election defeat in almost a century. Though Starmer has made a strong start, it is imperative we use the next couple of years to look at how we got here and plan how Labour forms the next government.

Based on recent research into the backgrounds and professional experience of current Labour MPs prior to their winning seats in Westminster, it is clear that one area which needs vastly improving is the recruitment of Labour MPs.

As the results below show, the party is not drawing from a broad enough spectrum of modern British society when selecting candidates to stand for parliament, particularly in terms of experience in the workplace.

This must be tackled if we are to bring together a team of parliamentary candidates whose experience truly reflects the realities of Britain in the 2020s.

The current situation

First, let’s look at our current Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) of 202 MPs excluding the House of Commmons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. The good news is that not only is it the closest in parity between women (104) and men (98) in Labour’s history, it is also the most ethnically diverse. Both of these are to be welcomed as enormous advances in the representation of modern Britain. It also shows that where there is a will to address under-representation, there are the means to make a difference. As a long-time British Chinese advocate for more diversity of representation in politics, I welcome these changes.

However, issues arise when looking at the professional experience of the current cohort of Labour MPs prior to them taking their seats in Westminster: 127 (63 per cent) of current Labour MPs had professional experience in the unions and public sector compared with just 46 in the private sector (22 per cent) and 30 in the third sector (15 per cent). Of those with private sector experience, only 12 (6 per cent of total Labour MPs) had worked on their own or a family business, and the majority of these were microbusinesses.

Using ONS figures from December 2019, it shows there is an inverse correlation between the professional experience of Labour MPs prior to Westminster and the distribution of jobs in the UK.  Four out of five people in the UK work in the private sector, and yet only one in five Labour MPs have worked in the private sector. This suggests the private sector generally, and particularly people who have set up and run their own business, are woefully under-represented amongst our MPs individual experiences.

Labour’s relationship with businesses and unions

There is a longstanding public perception that the Conservatives are the party of business, and Labour (the clue is in the name) is the party of the workers. This is why, at the foundation of the Labour party 120 years ago, trade unions were such important partners. In 1900, decades before universal suffrage, the workforce was overwhelmingly male, and many workplaces were huge heavy industry sites with huge numbers of workers doing dangerous manual work often in life threatening conditions, with little legislation to defend their rights and fight for their safety beyond union organisation.

Thankfully, largely due to successive Labour governments and European legislation, most workplaces are much safer and workers’ rights are protected in statute. Some of Labour’s greatest achievements in government have been to improve working conditions, pay and equality of opportunity, and rightly so, although there is still much to be done, and these achievements must be defended.

However, one of the easy assumptions of some on the left is that business is inherently bad, self-interested and only focused on maximising profit. Whether this is framed as bosses versus workers, as calls for nationalisation or renationalisation as an end in itself, or simply as suspicion of people who run businesses as somehow ‘not being true Labour’, this is a mistake.

As I know from my own experience, good businesses treat their workers well – they value and respect them and know that without their hard work, dedication and commitment, they could not survive. Of course there are bad businesses – and a Labour government should come down hard on those who exploit their workers, those who evade their responsibility to pay taxes which pay for the infrastructure on which their survival depends.

Yet we cannot escape this self-evident economic truth: businesses, small and large, drive our economy. Through personal and corporate taxation they fund our public services. And, as we can see from the figures above, businesses employ more than four in five working voters. So, we must guard against over-simplistic ‘business is bad, public sector good’ thinking and sloganeering. Most voters, who interact with businesses daily as they go about their lives, simply do not believe this.

This raises some difficult questions. While unions still play a very influential role in Labour’s party structures, the nature of the British workforce continues to change. Many jobs and workplaces today would be unimaginable to those bold protectors of workers’ rights who founded the Labour party. More people are setting up their own businesses and many people change careers at least once during their working lives. People are living longer, and can and do choose to work for longer, as many jobs are no longer as physically demanding as those done by their grandparents or great-grandparents.

Furthermore, changes in working practices and workplaces that were already underway have been accelerated by the necessity of the Covid-19 lockdown. We have discovered that the daily commute and large and expensive central offices are not necessarily essential to economic activity. And with ever increasing developments in technology, the world of work in the coming decades is set to be transformed still further.

At its peak, in 1979, 13.2 million UK workers were union members, that is 53 per cent of the workforce. By 1997, after 18 years of Conservative government,  union membership was around 31 per cent. Of course, there was a self-declared aggressive anti-union government policy under Margaret Thatcher, but it is important that Labour and the union movement remember that that is not the only story. Technology, globalisation and the rapid industrial development of many countries across the globe, especially China and India, have also driven the enormous changes in the nature of work in the UK over the last three decades.

Government figures on union membership at the end of 2019 show that just under a quarter of the workforce (6.44 million people) is represented by a trade union. In addition, while the public sector accounts for only 16.5 per cent of the UK workforce, almost 60 per cent of union members nationally are in the public sector. Union membership in the private sector, even after removing the 5.5million small business owners, is only one in eight (12.5 per cent) of private sector workers.

The modern nature of ‘labour’ as it is understood by the workforce of the twenty-first century, raises challenging questions for the Labour party. Are we keeping up with people’s lived experiences? Does Labour’s current relationship with trade unions, financially and structurally, reflect and represent the working experience of tens of millions of workers today as well as it did in 1900? And most importantly, how does the Labour party proactively seek to encourage the participation, and promote candidates for election, who better reflect the working lives of the majority of British people in the 2020s.

Broadening the talent pool 

Before becoming an elected representative for the Labour party, a person has to be selected as a candidate. Although all members are invited to apply, the routes and techniques for running a successful campaign – especially for what are seen as safe or winnable seats – are complex and often lack transparency in practice. Many candidates’ success relies far too heavily on personal connections and relationships within the local and national party,  as well as proactive backing and financial support from the unions. This makes it very difficult for individuals without those advantages to compete with any realistic chance of success. Running for selection as a candidate without these advantages requires a huge investment of time and money which is often difficult for individuals to balance with commitments in their work and family lives. Furthermore, once selected by the party, there is of course always the risk that the seat will not be won at all.

The more marginal the seat, the greater the risk and cost to potential candidates, which is always going to discourage potentially strong candidates without the requisite connections from putting themselves forward. And generally in the safest seats particularly those becoming available through retirements once the election is called, the candidates selected are almost always political insiders extremely well connected to the party or union leaderships; a practice which sits uneasily with many members, and with the party’s core value of equality of opportunity.

At the next general election, Labour will be looking to field at least 450 new candidates, and we need around 150 of them to have a realistic chance of winning in order to deliver a Labour government with a working majority. It is therefore right to consider developing an outreach and support programme to overcome some of the barriers to entry that has led to the PLP being unrepresentative of the experiences of the working population. And by looking at the routes current MPs have taken to Westminster, we can identify some bottlenecks, and some inherent prejudices in the existing system.

Below are some areas for consideration to members of CLPs, to those involved locally and regionally in selecting candidates for councils, devolved assemblies and Westminster seats.

By addressing these questions, the party can move towards a system that opens opportunities up to people who share our values, but who are deterred or excluded by the current selection processes and inherent prejudices. It is by tackling these prejudices that we build the best possible team of candidates for Labour in 2024.

  1. Reaching out to people with Labour values who work in the private sector.

All jobs can be demanding, but running your own business rarely fits into the nine to five routine. Often people in small businesses are very flexible and productive in the use of their time – their survival depends on it – but many of the requirements for being chosen as a candidate are extremely time consuming, especially for those without union or factional backing. How do we address this?

  1. Experience as a councillor is a significant factor.

Almost half of the current PLP (93/203) had previous experience as local councillors, and 10 per cent (20) had held leader or deputy leader roles with running the council or in opposition. Clearly this experience is invaluable in terms of understanding how practical politics works, while being compatible with earning a living. Could local campaign forums (ordinary members who interview all potential council candidates) and regional offices do more to reach out to members with more diverse professional experience to encourage them to stand?

  1. Considering union influence in selection of candidates

Twenty-two per cent of current Labour MPs had worked as paid officials for trade unions (most for affiliated unions who have seats on the NEC which increases their influence) and in many cases this was their last job before entering parliament. It is, of course, important that unions are represented in the Labour movement at all levels. But given the relatively low level of union representation in the workplace, especially in the private sector, what can be done to both increase union membership in areas where it is weak – particularly in the private sector – as well as encouraging workers who are not able to join a union, but who have valuable experience in their workplaces, to become potential candidates?

  1. Political staffers – a self-perpetuating cycle?

Increasingly, and inevitably, there is a route to a parliamentary seat through working as a member of staff for an MP or for the party – often both. Clearly the experience in the political world and the network of connections to be gained here are advantageous for potential candidates. But this ‘professional politician’ route is inherently discriminatory. The vast majority of political staffers are graduates (remember that is still less than 50 per cent of the population) and in the early stages of a political career, especially in London. Jobs are often poorly paid and highly competitive, making it harder for those without family financial support or connections to break into this world in their twenties. Of course there will always be people who have always worked in politics wanting to be MPs, but again, they are hugely over represented in the current PLP compared to the general population; around one-quarter of current Labour MPs worked as staff for MPs or for the Labour party in previous jobs.

We have seen through the use of all-women shortlists that changes can be made, although it has taken more than two decades for there to be more women Labour MPs than men. In order to form a government, Labour needs to increase the size of its PLP by more than 60 per cent at the next general election. The scale of this task means that there is every reason to develop and roll out a recruitment programme of considerable scale across the country in the next couple of years, before candidates are selected.

To come back stronger from our worst defeat in almost a century, the Labour party needs to do some serious work – and this involves broadening the experience base of Labour MPs so that we can speak for and appeal to the lived experiences of a much larger proportion of the voting public.

Sonny Leong

Sonny Leong CBE is vice-chair of East & South East Asians for Labour and former chair of Wantage constituency Labour party


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