When Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street in 1979, 98 of the 619 MPs in parliament had previously worked in manual jobs. In the space of three decades, the number has plummeted to just 19 – a mere 3 per cent of parliament. Ex-miners like Dennis Skinner, once two-a-penny on the Labour benches, are now lonely voices in a chamber dominated by professionals and the university-educated.
Parliament, like much of the country, has a class problem. As you move up the ranks of power, fewer and fewer working class voices are heard – more than a third of Theresa May’s cabinet were privately educated, compared with 7 per cent of the country, and 14 of the 29 members went on to Oxbridge. While this isn’t surprising from a party whose previous prime minister was a member of the Bullingdon Club, the reality is the Labour party also has a job to do. Seventy seven per cent of our elected MPs went to university and 7 per cent used to do manual jobs, whilst a quarter of MPs come from a new professional political class of organisers and advisors.
It would be too easy to conclude parliament is simply reflecting wider economic shifts over the last 30 years; that as heavy industries have declined and we’ve moved to a knowledge-based economy, horny-handed sons of soil are less an under-represented community than a relic of a bygone era.
But while the pits may have closed, Britain’s working class hasn’t disappeared. Instead, a new army of care workers, cleaners, Amazon pickers and supermarket packers has emerged and replaced the pit jobs in constituencies like mine. There is a new working class of precarious and low-paid workers, but, bar a few notable exceptions, where are their voices in today’s parliament?
This matters: class brought me to Labour and I wanted to become an MP to fight for my class. A two-bar electric fire to heat the whole house, being hungry in the run up to benefits day, standing in a different queue for free school meals, staying away from school on wear-your-own clothes day and spending half my childhood going without holidays or presents. These are scars that will stay with me, and drive me every day to fight for a Labour government.
I was lucky, I gained a place at university and from there my life changed. But for too many kids today, class is still the main factor in deciding their future. If you are born poor in Britain you’re more likely to stay poor. Just one in eight kids from low-income backgrounds will go on to be a highearner. And if you’re unlucky enough to be born in a poor area you’ll die earlier too. In government, Labour was laser-focused on closing the gap between rich and poor that begins in childhood, lifting a million children out of poverty and opening 4,000 Sure Start centres. And it paid off, investment in early-years education saw the proportion of childcare settings rated good or outstanding by Ofsted grow from 50 per cent to 93 per cent between 2003 and 2016. We didn’t completely close the gap but we were well on our way. That progress is now being systematically dismantled by a Conservative government that’s scrapped the child poverty target and is on course to push one million children back into poverty by 2020.
In coastal and ex-industrial market town constituencies like mine, class inequality is compounded by a lack of good local jobs and opportunities. Just 9 per cent of kids on free school meals in Ashfield make it to university, compared to 22 per cent of kids in a similar position nationally. There’s as much talent on a council estate as a country estate but it’s not reflected across our top professions.
But even if you make it to university and graduate with a good degree, the invisible networks and self confidence of class – described by a headteacher in one of my toughest schools as a “the social edge that being advantaged gives you” – still operate against working-class candidates trying to break into top professions. Half of civil servants, half of journalists and a staggering 74 per cent of judges were privately educated. Politics isn’t unique, it’s sadly no different.
The Labour party was founded on the values of a working- class movement which fought against the constraints of a class-ridden country. It is written into our constitution that where you come from and who you are shouldn’t determine your opportunities in life. We will always be a party who speaks for the working class, but we must be the party which speaks from the working class too.
So what can we do? In recent years our party has led the way in improving the gender balance in parliament and increasing BAME and LGBT representation. All-women shortlists have helped break down barriers for women MPs, and trail-blazers like Diane Abbott, Chris Smith and Angela Eagle have provided inspiration for countless candidates who’ve stood since. We can’t afford to take our foot off the pedal on these fronts (particularly when it comes to the representation of disabled people in parliament), but it’s time we used some of these tools to increase working-class representation too.
Shadow cabinet members like Angela Rayner and Jonathan Ashworth make me proud to be Labour, but they are the rare exception. If you don’t see people like you in parliament, with accents like yours or life stories you can relate to, the message you’re sent is: that isn’t your world, you don’t belong there.
Next, we must improve non-university routes into politics, including to jobs within our party. There’s no coincidence that declining union membership has closely tracked the decline in working-class representation in politics. The shop floor was once the training ground for Labour candidates, but with union density in new, precarious working-class jobs at record lows, we’ve lost a vital route in.
Our constitution calls for selection panels to take account of the need “to increase working-class representation”. But it doesn’t stop at selection. Standing for election is expensive, most candidates give up their jobs months before the election – some estimate the personal cost to be as much £30,000. If you’re a single mum working a full-time job that’s just not a risk you can take. The £150,000 fund announced by Tom Watson to train and back candidates from working-class backgrounds as well as disabled candidates, has the potential to deliver a new cohort of talent across our party.
Increasing working-class representation means removing barriers to participation at every level of the party, right down to membership dues. We have an unwaged and a waged membership rate, but is it time for the Democracy Review led by Katy Clark to consider whether we can make membership fees progressive so a nurse isn’t paying the same as a barrister?
Labour party meetings are often where talent is first spotted. But when local meetings are held on Friday evenings and sometimes run late into the night, how can we expect shift-workers, single parents, or people working night jobs and multiple jobs to participate?
Elevating the visibility and voices of working-class members within our party isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also fundamental to the future of our party. Far from having a declining influence on elections, class is driving some of the most important shifts in politics today. The last election saw a 12-point swing towards Labour from middle class voters. But we lost former Labour strongholds like Mansfield and North East Derbyshire – seats we’ve held for almost a century.
In constituencies like mine, many working-class voters have turned to parties on the right or away from mainstream politics altogether. American academics Noam Gidron and Peter Hall recently wrote a blog for the LSE entitled ‘Understanding the political impact of white working-class men who feel society no longer values them’. It argued that economic and cultural developments have operated together to increase support for populism – it’s not just the loss of jobs in working-class, former industrial communities, it’s also the loss of social status that comes with having a skilled job that generations of your family have performed and once formed the heart of your community. Low-skilled, low paid jobs don’t cover the cost of living and can’t compensate for this perceived loss of social standing in a society so visibly run by and dominated by the university educated and professional class.
There’s nothing heroic about growing up poor, every day I pinch myself I escaped it. But I’m also proud of my working- class roots, and know that it’s made me who I am today. As the Labour party we must be ruthlessly tough on the causes of poverty, and on those who are happy to write off kids from poor areas like mine as not destined for university or a job in the top professions. But Angela Rayner is right about elevating the status of vocational qualifications, and we must also enable more non-university routes into top professions including politics, properly valuing critical jobs like care and fighting for decent well-paid work that affords people respect and a voice in society.
Increasing the number of working-class voices in our party will help, but by itself it won’t solve the deeper alienation felt by many of our traditional working-class voters. For that, we must fight for a Labour government that will continue the work to eradicate child poverty, close the attainment gap for poor kids, provide the ladders up and deliver decent jobs in communities like mine.