By Richard Leonard
So – now we have it – Jeremy is our new leader. Eh? I hear you ask. ‘Is that the same Jeremy who has been leader since September last year?’ – yes. ‘So what was the fuss about?’
To get an answer to that you would have to ask the 172 Labour MP’s who passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. They appeared to be unhappy that the rank and file chose someone who spoke their language and shared a common socialist philosophy in contrast to a smooth operator from within their own parliamentary ranks.
Some unwise MPs raised their heads above the parapet firing off some vitriol or other at Corbyn or his supporters. In the naive belief that they would simply get some exclusive publicity for themselves, they fed the Tory media with much heralded rants gleefully used to ridicule the Labour Party.
In my long life around politics (too long I feel sometimes) I have met many MPs from all parties and they usually have one thing in common – an overwhelming desire for self-preservation. As soon as they are elected to that exclusive club in Westminster they set about turning it into a lifelong sinecure. There are, of course, notable and honourable exceptions but they are few and far between.
I recently had occasion to research some former Labour leaders. I was struck by how entrenched they had been within the roots of their own people – the working class. Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Jennie Lee and Barbara Castle, the latter two being the only ones who benefited from a university education, being a good example. Hardie and Bevan were miners, Bevin was a lorry driver; Lee was the daughter of a miner and Castle’s mother ran a soup-kitchen for local miners. They were always aware of who they represented and why. There has only been one permanent Labour leader since 1945 who could be vaguely described as truly representative of the working class, James Callaghan.
Out of the 230 Labour MPs approximately 16 describe themselves as from manual labour, 80 are Lawyers/Media/Teachers etc. and 101 previously worked in mainly politics or trade unions. (Smith Institute 2015). This imbalance should not just concern Labour supporters but the country as a whole. I would not argue against the perceived wisdom of having a variety of professions represented in Parliament but it is not therefore surprising that the ordinary party activist feels estranged sometimes from the Party’s representatives.
From a total of 329 MPs the Tory party boasts 243 who previously worked in Business/Finance, 171 who were privately educated and 148 who went to Oxbridge, so the Tory interests are well covered. (Smith Institute 2015). Where are the Labour MPs who were shop workers, bus drivers, postmen/women, carpenters, non-skilled workers etc.? Where is the passion of our elected representatives; how can you empathise with someone you have little in common with?
The anxious MPs and the National Executive would do well to indulge in some navel gazing to consider how best to vastly increase the number of MPs from ‘working class’ occupations. They have managed to assemble an almost respectable 43% (99) women Labour MPs (House of Commons Information centre 2016) so it is not beyond their ability to come up with a solution to make the parliamentary Party more representative of its large membership; but and it’s a big but, you have to have the will to carry it through. Then and only then, will we have something approaching complete unity between MPs and the spear carriers.
The patronising tone adopted by some MPs towards the rank and file of the Party is insulting and frankly contemptible in a great socialist movement such as ours and should be condemned out of hand by senior figures in the Party. Even if I strain I can’t hear a whisper of concern from that direction.
Until then we will have to make do with leaders who struggle to command the support of his/her backbenches. I wonder what Keir Hardie, Bevan et al would do now?