Class politics, race and UKIP-phobia

We should always take class seriously, especially in England, if we want to understand the society we live in and the route to a fairer and happier society. That is not the same as taking class as a key driver for the creation of a political party, philosophy or programme.

Meanwhile this doesn’t stop us taking poverty utterly seriously. I was born in the poorest part of Newcastle, spent my working life as a Methodist minister in some of the poorest communities of the North of England, and In May this year I was elected for the third time in one of the most working class wards in the country represented by three Lib Dem councillors.

In Sunday’s Observer Nick Cohen offered an excoriating explanation of the reluctance of the Labour leadership to ditch its fantasy “that the worse conditions for the masses become, the brighter the prospects of the far left are.”

However, in another corner of the Labour civil war battlefield is Caroline Flint MP, a born-again leaver, whose particular fantasy is that Labour will get most of what it wants from the EU after the UK has left. She is is no class politician and certainly no racist. However she is in alliance with a substantial number of Labour members who fear that voting for a second referendum would mean Labour losing droves of its traditional supporters to UKIP.

So how did a chunk of Labour end up there? Why is there so much fear of a very right wing anti-foreigner party whose former leader and trump card (every pun intended) left because it had become too extreme in its Islamophobia.

Let’s put it in historical perspective. The British Labour Party came into being via a different route to that taken by most European Socialist/Social Democrat parties. It wanted to get political representation for the trade union interest and working class communities. It was not overloaded with philosophical debate. A pragmatic approach to defending the working class unquestionably made a contribution to social reform municipally and nationally over the years.

However there has always been a vulnerability to racism buried within the Labour Party coalition, which has occasionally risen to the surface. This has often been expressed in terms of “our people” – a phrase beloved of right wing dictators.

One of my earliest and most chilling black and white memories of political television is of Ray Gunter MP. He was Minister of Labour in Harold Wilson’s government and was offering an anti-immigrant rant to the annual conference. “Go to Victoria Station.” he urged the comrades. “I’ve seen them.”

Conservative Home revealed many Conservative Party members regarding UKIP in their heyday, if not as a sister party, certainly as their friends in the East. They couldn’t understand why they couldn’t work together. In most local by-elections where UKIP have collapsed, it is the Tories who have been the beneficiaries. In conventional terms UKIP is a very right wing party. If substantial numbers of Labour MPs are still worried about supporters defecting to UKIP, this is an indictment of Labour complacency and lack of leadership in its heartlands over many decades.

* Geoff Reid is a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Bradford

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13 Comments

  • I well remember Ray Gunter, Geoff.

    In fairness I must say that Harold Wilson got rid of him, and in 1972 he resigned from the Labour Party a couple of hours before the Chief Whip was about to expel him…..saying ‘he couldn’t remain in a party of middle class intellectuals who were out to get rid of him’.

    I also remember he expressed support for Margaret Thatcher shortly before his death.

  • Fair comment David. But I still remember the conference apparently unperturbed by the speech. I am sure that Harold Wilson’s action was in the best interests of all of us. Interesting to note that class politics was still on his lips when he resigned – seeing himself as the victim of middle class intellectuals!

  • David Warren 17th Dec '18 - 2:41pm

    In my time as a Labour and trade union activist I witnessed racism many times.

    Worse still I also saw a reluctance to tackle it.

    On occasions the Labour leadership have actually pandered to nationalist feeling, remember Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers.’

    The Labour left have also been a bit confused when it comes to internationalism. In the 1980s the Bennite wing of the party was enthusiastic about import controls for example.

    As Liberals we need to come up with a programme of social transformation that gives everybody regardless of race or class a good life.

    The far right always sees a resurgence in times of economic uncertainty. They were barely on the radar during the post war boom years and that is no coincidence.

  • Every party needs to cast the moat out of their eyes.

    In 1983 I stood as the Liberal candidate for Richmond, North Yorkshire. I was absolutely staggered when a leading local figure in our Alliance partner SDP at the time suggested to me that I should make an issue of my opponent’s ethnicity (the future Home Secretary, Leon Britton). It goes without saying he got an extremely dusty answer.

  • Michael Bukola 17th Dec '18 - 9:31pm

    @David Raw is of course quite right. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. One could point to a number of By-elections and General Election results where we have only been too happy to make political capital out of rather controversial campaign strategies. The Bermondsey by-election in 1983 and the Cheltenham result in the 1992 General Election were classic examples of our own rather sad hypocrisy on identity politics.

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Dec '18 - 1:24pm

    Thank you for your post Geoff. The main lesson I’m taking away from this is that you and two other Lib Dem councillors represent a ward in Bradford that is very working class. I don’t think that our party represents the working class enough because we seem to be happiest when we have a good old academic argument about esoteric points of policy.
    We have a lot of new members who might be happy to become active in wards like yours if they only knew how. Perhaps you could encourage ALDC to do some training on this. We think of ourselves as a party which works for the best for everyone so we need direct input from you and your residents to help us in forming policies that are relevant to them.
    We also need this to campaign and win. Even in Tory held wards and constituencies we need former Labour voters to trust us and vote for us but this won’t happen unless we deliver for them. As a party we are trying to do better on representation of women and minority ethnic groups but as several commentators on LDV have said, we also need to do better on class as well.

  • Steve Comer 18th Dec '18 - 5:20pm

    I think the comments about Bermondsey and Cheltenham are unfair and inaccurate.
    I was at the Bermonsdey by-election, and most of the prejudicial campaigning against Tactchell was being done by a maverick Labour right winger called O’Grady who stood as “Real Bermondsey Labour” and this was picked up by the tabloids. The Liberal campaign decided not to engage with O’Grady in an attempt to deny him credibility, and much of the Liberal campaign was actually abut the poor services provided by Labour run Southwark Council.

    In Cheltenham most of the arguments about Taylor as Tory candidate were within the Conservative Party, and in fact some of them disliked the fact that he was from Birmingham more than his colour! Did Lib Dems benefit form the fact that they were split? Of course, but I dobt you’ll find anything untoward in any of the leaflets promoting Nigel Jones.

  • Peter Hirst 18th Dec '18 - 5:45pm

    Perhaps this tragedy of Brexit shows up the weaknesses of FPTP. If we voted under STV, MPs would be more vulnerable and therefore have more understanding of their electorate and more accurately reflect changing circumstances. Ministers would also be less secure and so put more pressure on the PM that might result in less ideology and more pragmatism.

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Dec '18 - 6:03pm

    @Peter Hirst
    “If we voted under STV, MPs would be more vulnerable and therefore have more understanding of their electorate and more accurately reflect changing circumstances. ”

    I do hope you really haven’t only just twigged this.

    STV maximises power in the hands of the voters – because not only can they prioritise candidates within one party but they can prioritise candidates across more than one party.

    All this is why Labour and Tories won’t countenance it – they believe in centralising and controlling power. Which gives us MPs who are no more than voting fodder at the command of the whips.

  • Bill le Breton 19th Dec '18 - 9:21am

    Having actually served on a Borough Council that used STV for its internal elections I can confirm that the most striking result was the competition between candidates of the same Party.

    It is highly possible that a side effect of introducing STV in Westminster elections would be to move the resulting Conservative Parliamentary Group further to the right.

  • Thank you Sue. Actually I think the training opportunities and the publicity given to particular policies both reflect the balance of power within the party. The preponderance of members and the areas of strength are in the South. Nevertheless ALDC and national policies have served us well – it’s just that our concerns get drowned out sometimes. Style is crucial when you represent “four former council estates plus the folks who live on the hill” – which describes Eccleshill. I cite just two components of ours. (1) Sheer visibility was crucial in my re-election in May. I buy a new pair of industrial boots for tramping the streets each year. (2) We are not afraid of blunt but accurate language in our Focus and we are merciless on topics where Labour deserve to be attacked. Thus our latest FOCUS headline was “Children at Risk” following the recent OFSTED damning judgement on Children’s Social Services (inadequate). One of our most popular policies is landlord registration which people understand from their experience but which Bradford Labour refuse to touch because there are too many landlords on the Council.
    In the end you have to reach the point where people see Labour as irrelevant to their lives and are willing to say that they see us “as for the people.” That’s why Eccleshill Labour have had only one Labour Councillor this century (2011-2015) and it was not a good experience for her or Eccleshill.

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