Saturday 20 September 2008

Does aspiration speak to working-class voters?

Labour's focus on ambition did not speak to the lived experience of working-class voters, Labour MP Jon Trickett told the Fabian fringe,

But Hazel Blears insisted that it was the only basis on which Labour could forge a broad enough electoral coalition to govern.

The political outlook of the white working-class can be summed up in one word: ambition. It is not an exclusively working-class or white attribute. But they are driven people and they want to get on.

They want their kids to do better than they did: they want their children to go on to university. Most working-class people I know do not want to be constrained within a narrow environment


The dockers and miners who formed the Labour Party did it not through altruism but about ambition for a better life: building a platform by which working-class people could make progress and get some of those things which the better-off could take for granted. That was what the NHS and the Open University were about.


We have never won elections just based on the working-class. We didn’t win in 1945 or 1964 or 1997 on that narrow class basis. We had a coalition. We need the working-class but we need that aspirational middle-class vote and that broad coalition to be in power, to do something for the working-class people who depend on a Labour government”

Jon Trickett countered that Labour did not have a language that spoke to many on working-class communities, because extensive research into what swing voters wanted was never replicated with unskilled voters:

There is a cultural and linguistic gap between our government and that social group: there is a major problem of communication. We have done loads of work with the C1s and C2s and barely any work at all with the Ds and Es.

Any party which aspires to a majority in this country must reach out to all social groups. That is fully understood. But what happened in power is that the coalition which was the genius of Tony Blair began to fall apart. If you don’t look at the seats, but the votes cast, then the number of people voting for us dramatically fell by at least 4 million votes. This is not purely an issue of recovering the social groups D and E – but the movement within those groups has been larger than among other groups, and the propensity to abstain is larger than in other groups.

The messages being sent failed to understand people's anxieties about the pace of change:

There are 3.2 million people in social group D. The Leech report says that within 12 years, there will only be need for 600,000 such people: the unskilled working class. For those people, many of whom are struggling to survive, what the world of work which globalisation offers to them, and which we are in danger of accommodating, is redundancy every 6-8 years and a gradual decline of the social group of which they are part. What does Labour offer in return? Opportunitiy and aspiration, which nobody could disagree with like motherhood and apple pie. For them, it is the end of a way of life. We offer education but many of these people failed at school and don’t want to go back.

John Denham argued that governments could not promise to prevent social change, but that government support was essential to enable people to cope with change:

The Leech report was not saying that we are trying to create a white-collar future. But it was saying that the jobs which you used to get without training or a qualification are changing and disappearing.

People used to say there will always be jobs for those who do not have skills. But now refuse collectors have skills and qualifications.The content of the jobs which were seen as basic jobs are changing massively.

We can’t promise people a world in which there is no change in the number of unskilled jobs, paying well to people with no skills. We haven’t got the power to do that – what we have the power to do is to equip people to get the jobs which will be available.

Denham also challenged Trickett's argument about education:

In the last 5 years, our government has enabled two and a quarter million adults to learn to read and write. So don’t tell me that people who failed at school don’t want to come back. That in itself was worth having a labour governmnt for .

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