Alex Snowdon argues it's politics not the social background of its leader that will enable Labour to reconnect with lost working class supporters
We should always be sceptical when policy wonks, self-styled 'thinkers' and political advisers focus on personnel not policies as the solution to a problem. So it is with Maurice Glasman, the apostle of 'Blue Labour' (remember that?), and his fresh advice for Labour Party renewal.
What's wrong, declares Glasman, is that too many leading Labour figures have Oxbridge backgrounds. The answer, he claims, is in broadening the range of those ascending through the Labour Party: more MPs from working class backgrounds, more leading figures who haven't been to Oxford or Cambridge. This will apparently enable Labour to reconnect with lost working class supporters.
There is no evidence that anyone has switched off from supporting Labour because Ed Miliband went to Oxford. But if you're Maurice Glasman, evidence and plausibility are less important than a provocative, media-friendly soundbite.
The truth is obvious: Labour needs policies which express the interests of working class people, if it is to inspire support among those disenchanted with mainstream politics. Most importantly, Labour needs to consistently confront the savage cuts to welfare, public services, pay and pensions.
The narrowing in educational and social backgrounds of MPs is a real phenomenon. The Labour Diversity Fund 'estimates that 80% of Labour MPs elected in 2010 are from professional backgrounds, with just 9% from manual working-class backgrounds.' As for the Tories, they more than ever reflect the privileged and powerful elite whose interests they represent: an Old Etonian leader, a cabinet packed with millionaries, and wealthy City donors funding their party.
It is certainly true, also, that leading Labour politicians tend to be disconnected from their own electoral base. But these problems are symptoms of long-term political trends: Labour's rightward-moving capitulation to neo-liberalism, and the wider hollowing out of democracy.
Politics has increasingly become an arena for professional 'career politicians', operating in a Westminster bubble with a veritable industry of advisers, researchers, lobbyists and so on. Debate is confined within narrow perameters, with Labour providing only mild opposition to a stridently right-wing government. Politics is primarily the management of the system, with minor tinkering to facilitate what is best for business, banks and the City.
We therefore see widespread popular alienation from official politics, with a democratic deficit between Westminster politicians and the people they are supposed to represent. Elections turnouts in the last decade or so have been lower than they had been for most of the previous century. Membership of the big parties is down. Those parties court donations from a thin layer of the wealthy. Labour still relies heavily on union donations, yet feels able to reject pleas to support large-scale public sector strikes.
Such secondary matters as a high proportion of Labour frontbenchers graduating from Oxbridge colleges is symptomatic, but hardly the root problem. Only a sharp break from the Labour leadership's timid centrist politics - replaced by the championing of policies which serve the majority, and challenge the dominant mantra of austerity - could reconnect it with millions of disaffected working class voters (or would-be voters).
Yet that is the opposite of what Glasman wants. Cheap populist gestures are in; a genuine change of political direction is out. The Blarites and others on Labour's right wing think Ed Miliband needs to make even more concessions to Tory ideology, become still more craven to the Daily Mail's right-wing populism and calls for austerity from bankers and corporate bosses.
A good start would be to abandon the shame and embarrassment at links with the trade unions, with their millions of working class members. Ed Miliband - still desparate to placate the right-wing press at jibes about supposedly being in the unions' pocket - is unlikely to take that course. He is even less likely to pursue policies to defend working class living standards, the NHS and the welfare state.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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