We need more blue collar Liberals

There is plenty of debate across the political spectrum about how unrepresentative of the overall population our elected politicians are.

Much of this discussion focuses on the lack of women and BAME people in the corridors of power.

This is, of course, a necessary debate because there are too many white men in positions of power. All our remaining MPs fall into that category.

Labour appear to be ahead of us in addressing gender and ethnicity issues in their party, but they have missed something.

They have increased the number of female and black MPs, but they have come largely from privileged or professional backgrounds.

The overall number of MPs who have been manual workers has fallen in recent years – probably because our decline as an industrial nation has meant miners and steelworkers don’t get into Parliament like they used to.

The ageing Dennis Skinner and Ronnie Campbell, who sit together on the Labour benches, are all that is left of what used to be a large group of NUM sponsored MPs.

Former blue collar workers are so rare at the top of the Labour party that former postman, Alan Johnson, joked in an interview that he felt distinctly out of place when his cabinet colleagues discussed their respective 2:1’s, which I believe is some sort of university grade.

Alan probably thought it was the QPR result!

So where are the blue collar Liberals?

Well, I consider myself to be one, having worked in a number of low paid jobs including as a postman for a number of years prior to becoming a full-time trade union official. I want to see more people with my background in our party.

I also want to see people from that background, or similar, recognised as an under-represented group in this party.

We need to get a lot more ‘Blue collar Liberals’ on board to help the Lib Dem Fightback.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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43 Comments

  • Graham Martin-Royle 20th Oct '15 - 10:32am

    “So where are the blue collar Liberals?”

    Here.

  • It is not just that more ta the top of politics are from middle/upper middle classes. It is that many have not even done blue collar work as part time/holiday work when they were young to actually work, even briefly, alongside those who spend their lives in blue collar work. Many future politicians spend their time now on internships for politics or professions.

    I do like the combination with the selection thread as it picks out where some real weaknesses are.

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Oct '15 - 11:44am

    Blue-collar is a class term and implies limitation to certain trades — I would prefer ‘low-income’.

    With regard to university degress, please bear in mind that given the exansion in university attendance during the 90s, there are plenty of us out there who have 2:1s, low incomes, unstable work / family situations and are not likely to be well enough resourced to be considered in the same social bracket as Alan Johnson’s cabinet colleagues…

    Just having a degree is not the same as doing what used to be thought of as a ‘graduate job’ any more.

    [NB, DWP figures in 2013/14 I believe – according to Wikilookitupquick gave the mean UK household income post-tax, pre-housing costs as £29,172, and the median as £23,556]

    But yes, where are such people, whether they work in traditional industry, a call centre or are paper-processing in some back office whether in public or private sector?

    And if they are out there, does the party admit they exist and allow itself to speak with their voice, rather than to them in condecension?

    It’s interesting to read this article in tandem with this LibDem broadcast from the last election: https://www.libdemvoice.org/new-party-election-broadcast-helen-makes-up-her-mind-45462.html

  • 8 MP all male and white. 6 AM Wales 2 female 4 male all white, 5 MSP Scotland 4 male 1female 1 white female MEP looking at their CV not many have actually been brickies, plumbers or dug a hole (some of them like Carmichael have continued to dig when in a metaphorical hole).

    20 national politicians 16 male 4 female.

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Oct '15 - 12:10pm

    I would also be interested to know whether ‘blue-collar’ is a term that women would use to define themselves – I don’t know whether I’m wrong, but it tends to me to be seen as a more masculine language? Am I barking?

  • Neil Sandison 20th Oct '15 - 12:19pm

    Agree with this article as a former postman I would be considered as blue collar .What worries me most was the disenfranchisement of so many blue collar workers at the last general election who didn’t vote and how many who did in fact vote voted UKIP or Tory even in my own council ward .The Labour vote was also down significantly .The recent comments of a Question Time conservative voter regarding working tax credits pretty much sums up the feelings of many blue collar workers who feel very much let down by the political establishment who feel we do not understand the sheer grind of their every day lives and probable are working just as hard as the Chinese blue collar workers are. Perhaps we should be looking to lift tax threasholds to 15.000 ,reversing tory employment legislation that harms the indeviduals employment rights for a starter.

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Oct '15 - 12:24pm

    Neil, I think you need to note that whilst you are spot-on, that lady did not describe herself as ‘blue collar’, she described herself as ‘running my own business’. We need to be careful of this termingology, whilst I entirely agree with the main point.

  • Matt (Bristol) I think you are on to something there. Most people at the sharp end of social care are women and I am sure would not use the term “blue collar” about themselves.

    Also, the general point about fewer working class MPs is a reasonable one. However, this is not the “fault” of the women who have been elected. This article seems to imply that good, solid male manual workers in politics have been displaced by privileged women. Where are the stats on this displacement?

    Were the likes of Naz Shah, Rachel Reeves, Jess Phillips, Alison McGovern, Sharon Hodgson and Diane Abbott all born with silver spoons in their mouths?

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Oct '15 - 12:29pm

    Ruth – maybe it’s that I work in social care…

  • I’ve been saying this for years, Lib Dems are generally middle class people whose priorities are often directed towards what happens “beneath” their tier in society. There’s no way to win from such a position, it’s effectively hoping that oligarchies will return to fashion. It’s perpetuated further the more targeted canvassing is done, because that often involves avoiding council estates. I’m typing in generalisations here – of course there are many exceptions and they should be applauded.

  • Neil Sandison 20th Oct '15 - 12:53pm

    Blue collar ,working poor, low income, job seeker ,self employed and struggling .It would probable describe a large section of our population earning less than £21,000 per annum .How will we assist this group in a positive way without harming the overall economy .Tax credits also have their faults and are poorly targeted, creating benefit upon benefit, just increases the paper chase and regularly gets under claimed .housing benefit and council tax rebates just makes private landlords rich. Universal Credit should have worked but IDS has tied himself up in red tape and unworkable systems it fails to reach those most in need.Any tax or benefit allowance must follow the KISS principle and be easily understood by the claimant or employer.

  • Matt (Bristol)

    “I would also be interested to know whether ‘blue-collar’ is a term that women would use to define themselves – I don’t know whether I’m wrong, but it tends to me to be seen as a more masculine language?”

    “Blue collar” would include food preparation, jobs all kinds of factory work (plenty of women do these), cleaning jobs etc. There are jobs that would probably should be termed “blue collar” but are not such as some care work, but I would suggest that choosing “low paid” is not a great description either.

    Ruth Bright

    “would not use the term “blue collar” about themselves”

    I’m not sure many men in manual work would use the term either. As I doubt anyone referes to themselves has being in a ‘white collar job.’

    “However, this is not the “fault” of the women who have been elected”

    It certainly isn’t, it is a reversion to the norm (for most of history parliament was stuffed with the rich). It will take pressure to get all the underrepresented groups up to a decent level.

  • I’m sorry to inform the author of the above post, but he will have to compete squarely with the UKIP machine.

    It’s so much that the disenfranchised are “blue collar” workers, it’s the fact that a whole tier of society haven’t even reached the dizzy heights of being blue collar in the first place.
    This tier of society has been completely ignored by the superior university class of Lab/Con/LibDems – the three main parties being made up of Alpha/Beta people who rather regard we Epsilons with amused disgust.

    And one of the main reasons for their disenfranchisement from any progress has been our old friend, the European Union.
    Without training, and with no other weapons to compete, this tier has been unable to compete in a corporate, liberal market; an excess of labour, contracting out EU-wide, the freedom of establishment for EU companies, and even the EU institutions in the form of the ECJ overriding national industrial dispute law – all have conspired against these people having a fair crack of the whip.

    Those lucky enough to have reached blue collar level, myself included, who have been lucky enough to have been given an apprenticeship, and made good lives for themselves, look upon, with a seething anger, our political class who have done nothing for the generation that followed.

    It is for this reason that I, in the upcoming EU referendum, will vote to Leave – and why the LibDems, in their present pro-EU form, will not get my vote.

  • Steve Coltman 20th Oct '15 - 1:57pm

    David has touched on a good point here. The old Liberals of 100 years ago were middle-to-upper-class with a conscience, wanting to do what they thought was right for the less privileged – which is fair enough, except the less privileged decided to look after their own affairs, hence the Labour Party. Trouble with todays Labour party is they have morphed into something resembling the Liberals of 100 years ago. Working class Brits have few politicians they can relate to nowadays. Briefly the BNP struck a chord with some, but even UKIP, fronted by a banker, looks middle class I guess. There is an opportunity here, but I don’t know which party is best placed to seize it.

  • @Joe
    Mostly agree, but I think both UKIP and the SNP used class politics effectively, it wasn’t merely nationalism that got them votes. Farage did an excellent job of persuading people he was an average Joe, even though it’s clearly not the case. Down the pub folk might say “you could sit and have a pint with Nige” – the result of class warfare focussed political marketing. I admire his abilities in that sense, it’s something that neither Clegg nor Farron could achieve convincingly (although Farron’s conference speech was certainly the closest for a long time).

    It’s endearing we’re so bad at it, because it demonstrate a real lack of comprehension as to the social differences between people; a deep conceptual commitment to equality. Sadly, that doesn’t win votes plus, of course, we’re not all equal yet!

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Oct '15 - 3:01pm

    working class female designated jobs like dinner lady, care assistant, etc. are usually referred to as “pink collar”, not “blue collar”. Not that there’s any proper reason why women can’t do traditional blue collar jobs.

  • Anthony Fairclough 20th Oct '15 - 4:43pm

    I think the point is probably also wider than our elected representatives, but also in our membership and our wider supporters.

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Oct '15 - 5:00pm

    Psi – there’s a challenge from someone then, choose an effective group phrase that is:
    – non-judgemental
    – gender-neutral
    – recognised by the group it claims to describe
    – that describes ‘traditional’ manual workers and their families
    – describes those who might consider themselves to be ‘middle class’ (either by dint of self-employment or employment in small businesses, by the education or by the apparently clerical, office based nature of their employment) but are still on incomes below the UK average
    – enables a political party to build an honest argument that it can genuinely claim to be the voice of the underprivileged masses in the UK socially and economically, rather than speaking ‘down’ to them as if from a far-off planet.

    Fallen flags – ‘squeezed middle’; ‘strivers’; ‘alarm-clock Britain’ … yadda yadda yadda.

  • There were two kinds of workers in the factory. Some were unskilled and could do no other kind of work, the others were unlucky.They had skills but for various reasons could not get skilled work.
    The days of doing the same job all your life are coming to an end. What is needed are effective progams that allow workers to retrain and aquire new skills.

  • All these collar references. Rather passe

    <

    The collar reference is very dated and insulting in a way. Now you are fortunate to get any job. What colour collar has my daughter, a graduate in a minimum wage 16 hour retail job?

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 20th Oct '15 - 6:31pm

    I consider myself working class but have a white collar job, my immediate family and extended family have a mixture of blue and white collar jobs.

    I think the big problem is the dominance of a wealthy political class, which most of the cabinet are drawn from, people born into wealth to such extent that they don’t understand living on a budget or the fears, insecurity that are part of life for most blue or white collar workers.

    We need more policies that deliver for “white van man” if we want him and is family to vote for us.

    There are, sadly, a small number of snobbish people who look down on such people and aren’t interested in talking to them.

  • Steve Coltman Could it be that deference is back?! That the Tories and UKIP are seizing the opportunity? Bearing in mind that surveys recently have shown that not only were better off people blaming those on low incomes for their situation, but that low income people were blaming themselves(!) it seems reasonable to ask the question.

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Oct '15 - 8:28pm

    What Anne said.

  • David Warren 20th Oct '15 - 8:36pm

    I used the title ‘Blue Collar’ because I felt it was the best description for someone like myself who spent many years as a postman working shifts for relatively low pay.

    In addition to that job I had other poorly paid jobs including clerical assistant, shop worker and builders merchant worker.

    If someone can think of a better description I will happily use it.

    The point I was trying to make was that our party doesn’t include many high profile people with similar backgrounds.

    The Tories certainly don’t (although the current cabinet does include an ex miner), neither do Labour, hence the reference to Alan Johnson.

    Labour get more blue collar support though, largely as a result of their link with the unions and the mistaken belief by some voters that they are the party for working people.

    We have to reach those people by having policies that show we are standing up for them.

    To me that means raising the income tax threshold further, a higher minimum wage, strong employment protection and responsive public services.

    To name just four.

    In addition it would be good if we saw more prominent Lib Dems from a ‘blue collar’ background.

    Labour have ex postman Alan and the Tories ex miner Patrick, even UKIP had a shop steward on their list of European candidates.

  • @David Warren – You choose four points that will protect workers – but don’t explain how to get people into work in the first place.

    You are offering nothing to those people on the bottom tier of society. This is where the’ blue collars4 LibDems’ comes a cropper; to enable that bottom tier to raise themselves out of their dependency there is going to have to be a ‘protectionist’ aspect to your policies.

    Everything that a party, with the word Liberal in its title, would be against, and something that is anathema to the European Union at present.

  • David Warren 21st Oct '15 - 10:48am

    @wg

    My list wasn’t exhaustive.

    Yes we need to be for full employment and well paid, good jobs too.

    Our long standing liberal commitment to partnership at work and profit sharing needs to be resurrected as well.

    The whole ethos of the party needs to be redirected towards a more social liberal philosophy.

  • @Antony

    >There are, sadly, a small number of snobbish people who look down on
    >such people and aren’t interested in talking to them.

    Hey Antony, very much agree with your sentiments, but I don’t think it’s alway snobbery that maintains the divide, many middle class people are genuinely afraid of working class areas and people. Maybe in certain circumstances they have good justification for their fears, for whatever reason it’s a very real divide. I live on a council estate (albeit a very middle class one by the sea in Cornwall) and it’s apparent that certain folk won’t walk down our road.

  • Regarding the argument of terms, the ONS uses the ABC1 designation for social grading : http://www.ukgeographics.co.uk/blog/social-grade-a-b-c1-c2-d-e
    https://www.ipsos-mori.com/DownloadPublication/1285_MediaCT_thoughtpiece_Social_Grade_July09_V3_WEB.pdf

    So, grade D is working class, which in turn has a specific definition (semi and unskilled manual workers). Whether we like these terms or not is another matter, I just wanted to point out that there is an agreed formal definition.

  • Many excellent points are made here regarding the make up of parliament and our parties. It will take considerable efforts to widen representation in parliament the power of the public schools has to be curtailed. Our party like the others is now perhaps dominated by politics graduates who have never had a real job and expect to be elected asap. With no knowledge of the harsher side of working life. I do not pity all the MP’s of all parties that lost their seats, they have a better pension for a few terms in parliament than many of us get after a forty year working life. I have been in the party for forty years seeing many changes for the worst as well as better. Dont recognise the term blue or white collar brought up to ignore class. Lets get a good cross section quota produce fifty fifty possible useless candidates.
    If we brought real apprenticeships back proding really professional skilled people with only the best going to university and post apprenticeship we would create a better society than. Trying to get everbody to university many for useless degrees. The other point is the middle class types have often more flexibility to take part in politics.
    Lets take the chance to represent all workers now Labour in a mess and the SNP’s success wont last. Sorry to rample a bit.

  • Lester Holloway 21st Oct '15 - 1:24pm

    We do currently have the most working class leader of a major political party in living memory, but in many ways Tim Farron is the exception and I agree our membership does not reflect the ‘blue collar’ (a bit of an American phrase). This is an historical problem. The decline of Liberals in the 20th Century was caused in large part because of the rise of Labour, not because they were more radical – in many ways they weren’t at their birth – but because of the desire of the working class to represent themselves. Liberals were, and remain, overwhelmingly middle class. The fundamental question here is ‘what makes people Liberals?’ While I think we share a desire for social justice with the labour movement, Liberals have a reputation for caring about issues that historically people with more time on their hands mused about; time that arose from more disposable income, more opportunities and more wealth. Parallel to this, Liberals belief in freedom often translates into trust not just in people to make their own decisions but bodies, organisations and institutions to ‘do the right thing’ if given a nudge in the right direction. The working class, oppressed by centuries by the landed and then the professional classes, instinctively have less trust in those who do not share their experiences and struggles, and therefore are more likely to gravitate towards enforceable rules, targets, monitoring and sanctions. The middle class experience of persuasion, networking and connections stand in stark contrast to the working class experience of demonstrating for rights, and consequently they are more drawn to the powers of the levers of state to bring about change than a more consensual approach. Of course these are generalisations, and there is a long history of Liberals using levers to achieve social change to benefit the poorest, but perhaps less history of Liberals taking the working class with them. In many ways the poor are more beneficiaries of Liberalism than participants in it, and the reforming ’45 Attlee government is not embedded in the public consciousness as being the work of radical Liberals.

  • Lester Holloway 21st Oct '15 - 1:24pm

    On BAME representation, there’s been a certain amount of debate in the party (rather than ‘lots’) but I would argue that so far it has not got us any further forward in terms of debating solutions and mechanisms for doing much about it, so we still have a way to go there. Many BAME Labour MPs are indeed drawn from more ‘privileged’ backgrounds, but for the majority their parents struggled hard, often on estates on low wages, to give their children privileges. Today many African and Caribbean parents still sacrifice much, and work hard in lower grade jobs, to send their children to private school and/or provide private tuition. Diane Abbott is one example of that. The frustration some in black communities feel about black MPs is not particularly that they come from a professional class but that they do not ‘represent’ adequately. The two factors then come together. Some Tory BAME MPs also have working class backgrounds despite getting a privileged education, while others are the sons of diplomats or have parents with a high ‘rank’ in their country of origin and were therefore raised middle or upper middle class. For me the class backgrounds of BAME MPs is not entirely the same in all respects as for white MPs and the key issue is the quality of representation. I would also add that even people of colour raised in middle class homes experience racial prejudice and that is a reminder that despite their advantages there are forces in society that no not favour them, which is something they continue to share – in different ways and with different dynamics – with the white working class.

  • Mike Falchikov 21st Oct '15 - 5:35pm

    A number of very good points made by most contributors. Lester Holloway is particularly thoughtful and challenging,
    but I think he might be wrong about Diane Abbott having been privately educated. As far as I know from her chats with Michael Portillo on Andrew Neil’s latenight show, they met in the 6thyear at Harrow County Grammar School. I know
    nothing about Diane’s background but Portillo is the son of a Spanish Socialist (a refugee from Franco) and a Scottish
    Liberal mother. Grammar schools in their time did not a bad job in increasing social mobility and opening up
    possibilities to bright working class boys and girls that their parent’ generation did not have.

  • David Warren 21st Oct '15 - 6:14pm

    More excellent points.

    Thanks.

    I agree with Lester about Tim, which is why he makes an excellent leader for our party.

    We have to get to a point where our party looks like the people it seeks to represent.

    At the moment we are a long way from that.

  • A very interesting debate but sadly a bit low on suggestions for correcting these biases in our representation at Westminster. Indeed wg seems to be suggesting that we can do nothing because we are Liberals. I think this argument is also raised when discussing equal opportunities in other areas and for me,as well as being a totally depressing argument, it stems from a misunderstanding of Liberalism at its best. We believe in freedom but that easy freedom ends when the freedom of one person prevents another from exercising their own freedoms, thus politics is about trying to establish the fairest balance of power. Liberals supported a free economy in the nineteenth century because protectionist tariffs on imported wheat were making the price of bread too high for ordinary workers and people were dying of hunger. I think this has led to the assumption that if you are a Liberal you must be against all protectionism. The problem is that our society is extremely complex and produces those biases that we are seeking to address. When death is involved arguments become clearer. Today death from poverty is rarer but the death of the spirit still results from impoverishment, the death of hope, of aspiration, of the ability to fight back. Surely modern Liberals should be seeking measures which will enable those without a voice to find it. Even if this involves some kind of positive discrimination we must consider it, not dismiss it and do nothing. Surely we are all in politics to change things not to use Liberalism as an excuse for allowing inequality to continue.

  • Ian Hurdley I agree with you about finding a solution in local politics. When I was a Councillor in Bath we had Councillors from all walks of life and about half were female but probably the majority were middles class. We did not have any ethnic minority councillors but we worked with our local equality council to introduce an equal opps policy for the Council. The problem is then to encourage people to go further in their political careers but this could be established as a requirement for all local groups. We must also realise that unless we take positive steps to show that we are truly Liberal women and minority groups will take one look at us and decide they don’t belong.

  • David Warren 23rd Oct '15 - 11:08am

    Thanks for all the comments.

    The article has demonstrated that this is a debate that must be had.

    I have sent a copy to Tim Farron and i’m seriously considering making ‘Blue Collar Liberals’ an ongoing campaign.

  • SueS

    “Surely modern Liberals should be seeking measures which will enable those without a voice to find it. Even if this involves some kind of positive discrimination we must consider it, not dismiss it and do nothing.”

    I’m not sure if you have noticed but you present a false choice. There is a distinction between “positive discrimination” and “positive action” the first is simply excluding those you have decided are over represented and selecting those you have decided are underrepresented. Positive action is making steps to increase the opportunities of those who you consider to be under represented. Positive action is difficult and expensive and often people can’t think of what measures would have the desired effect, which is why you will often find organisations practicing discrimination and branding it “action.”

    What I have seen of the LibDem’s attempts at positive action is so limited that I can’t see circumstances under which they would succeed. It feels like they are so half hearted that those who conceived them have no intention of making them work.

    At the other side you have to remember to what extent positive discrimination can actually undermine a good candidate. A candidate who was on a “all X short list” will immediately enter an election where the opponent(s) will high light this repeatedly to imply a level of inadequacy, probably more so if the opponent shares “X” characteristic.

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