Thursday 30 May 2024

A Last Chance At Class

David Littlefair, not the one whom some of us know, writes:

As a downpour-soaked Rishi Sunak announced the process that will almost certainly wash his administration down the drain of British political history, baffled Westminster hacks wondered aloud what possible strategic advantage might have motivated his timing.

Among the plausible explanations floated; dodging conference season, or IMF financial blackholes, or perhaps dodging embarrassing immigration figures. Few thought about the Labour Party position, presumed to be essentially watertight.

However, there is one small way that his shock announcement might have wrongfooted Labour — their yet to be completed parliamentary selections. An extremely niche process that few outside Labour care about or know of, but one that speaks directly to the party’s nature in 2024 and the threadbare link that still exists to its tradition as a party of the working class.

Since 2022 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have been choosing who they will put forward to fight their new seats as Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC). A secretive process by which members apply to a seat with an online form, are ‘longlisted’ as potential candidates, then whittled down to a shortlist by Labour’s NEC, before facing a local member vote.

Almost all the seats the party considers a priority target now have a candidate lined up, but there are plenty of stragglers and plenty of local parties that are nursing grievances at being held in limbo for years.

Hours before Sunak’s appearance outside Number 10, Labour’s in-house magazine ‘Labourlist’ had discreetly published an article claiming more than 100 seats are yet to have a candidate approved. Labour will now need to rush these selections, and impose candidates. This will involve bypassing its overwhelmingly middle class membership, but will also give the party one final opportunity before the election to honour its original raison d'ĂȘtre as ‘party of the working man’. Will they take it?

Until now (if party spokespeople are to be believed), Labour has chosen to be ‘cautious’ about who it allows to face the largely ceremonial mechanisms of local party democracy.

A cynic might interpret this caution and vetting to be selectively applied. Labour allowed the selection of Wilma Brown and Azhar Ali, both candidates who were later removed for indefensible opinions shared on social media that the party’s processes had managed to miss. At the same time, the cautionary approach confidently removed candidates more vocal about the class issues the party was founded to address, claiming that only the highest quality candidates could face a vote. The heavily union-endorsed former bus driver, campaigner, and (now former) Labour councillor Sean Halsall was blocked from shortlisting with little explanation other than the implicit signal that they were ‘too left’.

The strain that the selection process has placed on Labour’s internal culture is largely disregarded and the hurt that the lack of plurality in selections has caused seems to be ‘priced in’. A necessary and inexpensive loss. In local parties, the ongoing suffocation of Labour’s left wing has made Starmer’s initial pitch as a unifying figure seem an ever more distant memory.

But while factional internal politics matter little to any normal voter, the real gravity and implications of Labour’s rigid selection process between 2022 and 2024 reaches beyond Labour’s internal bickering and might take a generation to be properly understood.

So far Labour selections have been almost completely dominated by high status lawyers, government professionals and lifelong politicians. Roles that have become ever more prevalent in parliament as politics has become professionalised — an insider only club of those in the know or of means. Regardless of which party bench, some parliamentarians have means beyond the wildest dreams of any normal person. Labour’s next parliament will include a safe seat reserved for a Sunday Times Richlist graduate who’s fortune runs into the hundreds of millions.

Of those chosen to be Labour MPs so far, only a handful have lived the unremarkable working class lives that were once common in parliament. While former nurses, train drivers or shop workers were common on the Labour benches even during Blair’s tenure, they make up only a handful of Labour’s candidates in 2024. In the few constituencies where a blue collar worker of the type that Labour was founded to represent has stood, Labour’s membership and internal democracy has resoundingly rejected them in favour of elite professionals. Labour has become a party made up solely of upwardly mobile winners, blandly uniform high achievers united not by any particular political conviction but by the survivorship bias of their remarkably similar but unrepresentative life stories.

In 2019, Boris Johnson flipped the electoral table, beating Labour in the C2DE earning vote group for the first time since the pre-ww2 National Government. Finding newly minted Conservative voters in former mining communities and the deflated parts of Britain still aching from deindustrialisation. ‘Left behind’ towns that had grown to distrust a Labour party that seemed to loathe their values as unsophisticated and deplorable. Labour has done little real work to reintegrate people like this that were once a core part of their vote.

Labour has not chosen a single parliamentary candidate that could be emblematic of the ‘red wall’ that Johnson knocked through. There are no Leave voting, middle aged men in lower earning careers without degrees. No ‘gammons’, so loathed by the metropolitan media, who have lived lives marked by deindustrialisation, collapsing wages and managed decline. None of the people who have been turning away from Labour for fifteen years.

Instead, Labour has found successful high status professional ‘returnees’ — the type to talk fondly of a place of birth that they left as quickly as they could, usually for London, where Labour’s power networks are concentrated, in a mirror of Britain’s incredibly South East centred economics.

The party has made a point of parachuting candidates who were professionally involved in the Remain campaign and the Second Referendum campaign into some of the most heavily leave-voting seats in the country- gambling that the divide that split its traditional working class voters from its new metropolitan city constituencies is a thing of the past. A populist folly that, in electing Labour, the country will quietly offer a mea culpa for. In an era of rapidly changing political allegiances and widespread downward mobility, this seems a bold assumption.

Labour has a final window in the next month and a half to bypass its members’ heavily ingrained classist attitudes. It can, in fact must, forcibly place leave-voting mechanics, factory workers, warehouse technicians, nurses and carers into its last few remaining seats.

If it cannot even muster what would amount to a token gesture in recognition of its great history, the tiniest of hat tips to the ghost of Nye Bevan (a man whose achievements are still talked of in Labour circles in hallowed terms, but who’s lack of education and manual labour could never find a home in the modern Labour party) then for all Starmer’s remarkable achievement in turning around the party’s fortunes, the question will still remain: what, and who, is it for?


  1. Torsten Bell, I ask you!

    1. "Adviser to Alistair Darling as Chancellor"? That could not have been later than 2010. How old was Bell in 2010?

      That is before we start about The Honourable The Honourable Georgia Gould. When she seized the tents of Camden's homeless, then what did she do with them?