As the Labour campaign continues to make good progress whilst the Tories lurch from one failed artifice after another, and in particular Ed Miliband is increasingly taking command with growing confidence, the election has nevertheless drawn attention to a disturbing penumbra of alienation from the whole process. In poor white working class areas the number of households who say they never vote/haven’t made up their minds/believe there’s no point in voting because nothing changes or they’re all the same anyway, is alarmingly high. Of course there has always been a substratum of the population who felt and talked like that, but it has grown uncomfortably over the last 5 years. In a sense these patches of territory in England begin to resemble what has happened on a broader scale in Scotland. They feel they have regularly voted for Labour in the past, but it seems to make no difference because nothing changes (however unfair this judgement might be). This is not something that Labour can or should neglect: why has this happened and what needs to be done to regain these voters from their sense of abandonment?
There are three main reasons for this phenomenon. One is the Blairite embrace of the Thatcherite ideology of deregulation, privatisation, inequality, welfare cutbacks, and suppression of the unions, as a result of which the economic experience of the under-class was little different under Labour compared with the Tories.
A second reason is that they’re utterly ‘pissed off’ (as they will tell you) by being made the butt of endless austerity. This is the section in society that has suffered the degradation of being sanctioned – they can’t get a job and then find their unemployment benefit is arbitrarily cut off for 4 weeks for trivial infringements or for reasons they’re never told. There were according to DWP figures 900,000 them sanctioned last year. This is the section in society which is humiliated by having to go to food-banks to survive. And this is the section of society that is constantly vilified by Tory propaganda dripping with malice, contempt and antagonism towards them as ‘shirkers’, ‘layabouts’ and ‘spongers’.
The third reason is that the Labour party has changed drastically over the last 40 years from being the champion of the working class (which, let us not forget, remains a majority of the population) to being perceived as a narrow, metropolitan, inbred elite. To be truly representative, half of the PLP should be working class; in fact less than 10% are. The party has been hijacked by the ambitious, graduate, careerist middle class. People on poor, white, working class estates simply don’t connect with them, nor vice-versa.
Labour cannot afford to lose this sizeable voting (or rather non-voting) base either for electoral, political or moral reasons. Regaining it will require radically different policies in government, a PLP with very many more working class MPs, and a conscientious and sustained effort over the next 5 years to bring this disenfranchised sub-class back into the mainstream.