Mon Nov 17th, 2008 at 08:42:17 AM EST
I had a fascinating conversation last night with a friend who spoke about some of her experiences on the periphery of the nascent NuLab project and what she learnt from it. Due to laws of politeness as well as libel I simply cannot name names or organisations so all of these are pseudonymous, but it remains instructive.
I do not mean by what I write here to impugn all Labour Party MPs, many of whom are good people. But I think we have all come to recognise that there is a certain cadre of metropolitan eleites who seem to be parachuted into safe constituencies and whose primary characteristic is their loyalty to the Nu Lab brand. This essay is useful in showing how they were identified from the others seemingly equally deserving.
At that time my friend Rachel was very high up in a national liberal-left civil rights organisation we'll call "Suffrage". It was led by somebody who is now a Cabinet minister (H) and their aide was somebody else who is now a senior MP (M), both were showing careerist tendencies. As with all such organisations at the end of the 80s / beginning of the 90s, there was an ongoing funding crisis and, as the Nu-Lab era dawned, one long-serving member of staff (L) was forced out with a derisory redundancy package well below that to which they were entitled. Remember; this was a civil rights organisation which should never have done such a thing.
Rachel went around saying that it was unacceptable behaviour and discovered that all of the relevant staff had been told that either they agreed to this disgraceful thing, or more "savings" would be required to pay for the justified payout. So most complied out of fear for their own jobs as it had become obvious that stickinng your head up was asking to be shot down.
As a result of this Rachel also lost her job : She became disillusioned and then very ill and the organisation used her sickness as an excuse to get rid of her. She was both too ill and too fed up to protest.
Some time later she ran into a senior figure from the organisation who is now an MEP. She asked him, now all the dust had settled and the feuds forgiven, why he had abandoned his principles in not standing up for L. He confessed that the NuLab project was principally about loyalty and they were only interested in promoting people who would be willing to do their dirty work and become "made-men" (he didn't use this phrase, but the inference was there). Thus his candidacy for MEP was partly conditional on his willingness to shaft L, or rather that not to do so would have been a career-limiting decision : Equally he mentioned that M's promotion to MP was partly conditional on bringing about Rachel's own demise within the organisation.
Suffrage has been a toothless tiger throughout the Labour years, their leaders are high profile yet strangely ineffective; as if they operate within agreed constraints. But as we have said very often in the last few months, there are too many loyal but essentially talentless people within the NuLab hierarchy. The people with original ideas are also theose who have annoying traits like principles and cannot be relied upon to be ruthless enough to stab the innocent in the back. A short term tactic to ensure message control has been counter-productive in the long term as labour now faces a period where its narrow base threatens an inner withering.
Guardian - John Harris - If we want more representative MPs, we need to start talking about class
In some circles, the fashion among politicians for pinching Barack Obama's magical rhetoric is now known as the Yes We Can-wagon. Last week it was Harriet Harman's turn to climb aboard - though in fairness, there was at least some superficial logic in her use of Obama's name. In the wake of the election of the first black president, she announced a decisive move on the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people at Westminster, and a year-long Speaker's conference inquiry into the issue of representation. The initiative came with a flurry of speculation about building on the legal status of all-women shortlists with new laws allowing all-ethnic minority candidate selection, a pledge to look at gay and lesbian representation, and the obligatory reference to the president-elect's most easily-stolen slogan. Obama, Harman told the Commons, "has reaffirmed and re-legitimised democracy in America. He said, 'Yes we can.' We should say, 'Yes, Westminster can too.'"
Here, though, is the big drawback. Even if all this is being packaged with 21st-century buzz-phrases, it smacks of Labour politics of an older vintage and the great mistake of the metropolitan left of the 1980s: keeping the flag flying for a polite version of identity politics but neglecting the issue of class.
Consider the numbers: in 1987, long after the high-water mark of working-class representation in the Commons, 73 MPs who had come from manual occupations were elected; by 2005, the figure had dropped to a mere 38. In crude terms, that makes for a startling picture: about a third of the working population being reflected in just over 6% of MPs. Worsening this imbalance, there's the continuing rise of MPs who have known precious little apart from the political whirl. Figures from the Nuffield election studies project put the share of current MPs who were "politicians or political organisers" at 14.1%, up from 5.4% in 1987 - an increase surely reflected in the numbers from Westminster-aligned trades like thinktanks, PR and public affairs.
Of course, there are politicians from all sides who are discomfited by this. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, the secretary of state for communities, Hazel Blears made a speech to the Hansard Society full of tough talk. "It is deeply unhealthy for our political class to be drawn from a narrowing social base and range of experience," she said. Parliament was in need of "people who know what it is to worry about the rent collector's knock or the fear of layoff ...
It's a reasonable essay about the narrowing of the political classes and how obedience counts more than anything these days, but he ends with this point about the Labour party, one most have now forgotten;-
In the brief debate that followed her proposal, the Labour MP Tony Wright - who says he's "astonished" at the limited remit of the Speaker's conference inquiry - was a lone voice, but he said something very important: "The Labour party came into existence because the Liberals were refusing to choose working-class candidates, so the trade union movement and others said, 'We will set up our own party to ensure that working-class people can enter parliament'. It would be odd to talk about the problem of under-representation in public life and to set up a Speaker's conference at which we could think about those issues and come up with remedies, without mentioning class at all."