Sunday, 10 May 2015

How the Conservatives became the workers' party.

There are 79 seats in the "south east region" and all but five of them are held by Conservatives. While we've been talking about Scotland, London and the North, the Conservative Party has consolidated its control of the growing part of Britain. The Labour Party is vanishing across the South and has been for decades - the decline was briefly stemmed by the Blair landslide but is now returned. And Labour offers nothing to the aspiring private sector workers who live in those blue seats.

Most Conservatives I know have greeted the election result with what amounts to an unbelieving sigh of relief. We'll be pinching ourselves repeatedly for the coming few weeks as we realise that it wasn't a happy dream but reality - we really do have a Conservative government with an overall majority. All that effort was, for once, absolutely worth it.

Perhaps understandably given their unexpected defeat, the Labour Party's cheerleaders in the London media have started to chew over the reasons for that inexplicable loss. The anguish in their analysis is palpable and not helped by Peter Mandelson pointing out that Tony Blair was right when he said that with a traditional Labour manifesto you get a traditional result.

While all this is going on a few hundred idiots decided that daubing vulgar signs with "Tory Scum" and "Fuck Austerity" was the way to respond, a decision made worse by one of their number choosing to fight austerity by vandalising a war memorial on the 70th Anniversary of VE Day. This may feel like sticking it to the man but many many people will look on, nod and feel absolutely assured that voting Conservative - often for the very first time - was the right choice.

The analysis we have seen so far is, as is often the case at this stage, more a case of 'how dare these people not vote for us' combined with the desire to pin the entire blame on Ed Miliband and his core vote strategy. It's true that this was always a vanity campaign in which the Labour establishment gathered in a echo chamber and persuaded itself that there's a 'natural progressive' majority, that all those nice Liberal Democrats would vote for Labour this time, and that Ed merely had to sit still until polling day to collect the keys to Number 10.

I suspect that, in their quieter moments, many Labour people understand the Party's problem. They can pick up the map and look at how Labour has shrunk back to what we might (a little cruelly) call 'Rust Belt England'. One image doing the rounds compares Labour's seats to an old map of England and Wales' coalfields - an image used to suggest, rather daftly, that somehow all the Party has left is the eternally loyal miners. The real picture is very different because that old working class isn't the main source of Labour's votes any more.

We know, for example, that most members of Unite (the union) probably didn't vote Labour last Thursday and I'd speculate that those Unite members working in the private sector overwhelmingly rejected Labour's message. You'll remember during the campaign that Ed Miliband had a difficult encounter with one of these skilled workers.  We also know that perhaps as much as half of Labour's vote in England is from ethnic minorities - look at where Labour gained seats (London, Bradford, Dewsbury, Birmingham) and look at the Party's remaining handful of seats in the South (Luton, Slough, Bristol). This is as much of a problem for the Conservatives but Labour's working class vote is now increasingly a working class BME vote.

However, Labour isn't run by these people, it's run by its absolute core constituency - public sector workers. When I look across the chamber of Bradford Council, I see fewer and fewer working class faces (and those that are working class are Asian). Instead the faces I see are those of well-educated, middle-class public sector and 'third' sector workers. The very same sorts of faces we saw time and time again on Thursday waiting to hear election results. There's nothing wrong with this except that it gives the Party a very skewed view of the issues and perpetuates a romantic myth of manual labour as a noble calling.

The truth is that the working class don't hew coal from the living rock, pour hot steel or bash metal into shape. We have machines that do that stuff for us these days. Today's working class answers telephone calls, serves you in shops and restaurants, processes transactions and drives delivery vans (often white ones). And there are still skilled manual trades - mostly self-employed. These people look at the Labour Party and see privileged public sector workers with higher wages and better pensions earned doing fewer hours. Labour polled just 15% amonst tradesmen.

Last week those working class people looked at Britain and decided that, however caring and compassionate Labour's message might appear, they would vote to make sure that the slow improvement in their standard of living would continue. And if this means a little more tightening of the funding screw in government then so be it - these aren't wealthy people just middling sorts with mortgages, fuel bills and taxes to pay every month. The Conservatives won because they talked directly to these people instead of creating a false bogeyman of austerity or accusing them of self-interest (and worse).

For me the most telling comment - one we will hear again and again in the next few years - was this;

Grant Shapps, the party chairman, will stand alongside Sir John Major, the former champion of the "classless society", to announce that the Tories are now determined to show they want to spread – and not defend – privilege.

Speaking at the new Conservative campaign headquarters, the Tory chairman will say: "The Conservatives are the Workers' party and we are on your side."

The problem for Labour is that this is pretty nearly true. Unless Labour reaches out to the private sector and people working in the private, stops treating profits and business as evils, and embraces its role in delivering public services it will continue to fail in meeting its mission as a party of labour.

For my party, we have returned again to our mission - the objective set for us by Disraeli all those years ago: to improve the condition of the worker. Long may it stay that way.



Anonymous said...

Absolutely spot on, and long may your conclusion remain true!

Anonymous said...

Absnlutely spot on but why was this not voiced in the campaign why was Labour left to commit hari kiri with its 70s socialism

Anonymous said...

It's pleasant for you to bask in this I'm sure.
But you do understand how your party is abusing the very people you describe in this article?
How taxation is being stacked on them in favour of cutting tax on others, higher up the income scale?
Tell me you can do that basic arithmetic?

Huw Jones said...

Very well written Simon, but what of the 'coalface' public sector workers ,- the nurses, midwives, health care assistants, teaching assistants, refuse collectors, care workers etc who are not well paid and who have been bearing the brunt of public sector job cuts? What about those living in social housing, orvwho woild like to but can't? Hope the Conservative Party is going to be for those workers too.