Winning the working class

Back in 2015, I wrote an article entitled ‘We Need More Blue Collar Liberals’ which generated a decent amount of comments and responses from some of the MPs I contacted notably Alistair Carmichael. However, nearly five years on my one-person campaign has seen no real progress. The party nationally appears to have stopped talking about people from lower socio-economic backgrounds when it talks about diversity. There is quite rightly plenty of talk about inclusion particularly in relation to the BAME community, the recent Thornhill report makes much of this but in an election review where Labour’s famed Red Wall collapsed not to us but the Tories the working class don’t get a mention. In many ways, mistakes that were made 100 years ago are being repeated as Liberals appear to fail to understand that success in progressive politics means reaching out to the majority of voters who academics classify these days in letters and numbers.

It is true of course that the Liberal Party’s decline into third party status was partly as a result of a split in their ranks, but it didn’t have to be like that. The people’s party was led by two people who had previously tried unsuccessfully to be Liberal parliamentary candidates. Just think how different history might have been if Keir Hardie and Ramsey MacDonald had gone on to be Liberal MPs. These days neither of them would stand much chance of getting selected as candidates for parliament in any party let alone ours. Labour’s composition has become less and less mainly working-class as a result of the decline of trade unions in heavy industry. A party that used to have a group of MPs who had been mineworkers now has none, in fact, the only former pitman left on the Commons benches sits on the Conservative side. So where do I look for inspiration going forward? Well, Layla Moran gave a pretty positive response to my question about broadening our base in a recent online event, and party activists gave a similar reaction in another.

Besides as a party, we appear to be moving in a centre-left direction which is long overdue, policies like a Universal Basic Income could have a wide appeal and our plan to give more support to those working in health care through the current crisis can only help our cause. Winning though will only come by a much wider strategy including a broad range of radical policies, establishing links with trade unionists at the grassroots and having a party that looks more representative of the electorate it seeks to represent. If we can do that maybe I will start seeing more people like me taking an active role within the Liberal Democrats. I certainly hope so.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • Michael Bukola 1st Jul '20 - 7:07pm

    Thanks for this. Retaining the working class in any great number has proven difficult in a post-Brexit climate where white transit van drivers and black taxi drivers too often are pro-Brexit. The days when we held seats like Burnley, Brent East, Redcar, Bermondsey, Southport, Colchester and Portsmouth South have disappeared with the polarised nature of our politics. Moreover, with mass unemployment on the way, I fear we will lose ground in Labour-facing constituencies.

  • richard underhill 1st Jul '20 - 10:20pm

    Remember what Charles Kennedy said about Labour – SNP relations
    “Speaking as a Scot, , they hate each other”
    Charles said this on broadcast TV, A Labour MP was present and silently agreed.
    We do not have a good prospect of agreeing with the SNP, which our previous leader tried and found that a friendship with the SNP is not really a friendship.
    Labour is a different prospect, Corbyn-free, decisively dealing with its problem of anti-Semitism and with a leader who is currently more popular than the current Prime Minister. We should not aspire to compete with that. Prime Minister Designate Roy Jenkins is not available.

  • richard underhill 1st Jul '20 - 10:36pm

    In the 2014 referendum we mostly campaigned in seats held by Liberal Democrat MPs, one of whom sponsored the support for the United Nations policy of providing 0.7% of GNP for overseas aid and embedded it in law to the consternation of some ideological Tory MPs.
    I do not know whether the dog that bit me was an SNP supporter, but the hospital that treated me had free car parking.

  • Yes, Michael was an excellent M.P. And a great human being……… badly treated by Clegg, and lost what had been a Lib held seat for fifty years because of the Clegg Coalition.

  • I can’t imagine what competing with Keith Starmer would look like – or not competing with him for that matter! Meanwhile I am content to carry on fighting Labour in a working class ward which we have held since the turn of the century (with an MP 2010-15). In fairness to David Warren we may not be typical in the great scheme of things but it is good to be able to represent people who see us as being “for the people” and distrust Labour from any of their factions.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 8:43am

    @ Michael Bukola,

    So “white transit van drivers and black taxi drivers” spring to mind when you hear mention of “the working class”? They are more likely than most to drop their aitches and have illiberal opinions? I suppose it makes a change from thinking that the working classes all wear flat caps, live in council owned housing, smoke woodbine cigarettes, drink mild beer, race pigeons and keep whippets.

    Without meaning any disrespect to anyone who does any of these things we should all recognise that anyone who works for an employer is technically working class. That classification tends to break down a little when large salaries are involved, but its a pretty useful definition to keep in mind for most of us.

  • Make a list of the things that you think might be concerning the average working class voter this morning. Now Google any of our leaders and look at what they have been talking about in recent days and write them down. Now compare the two lists.
    And there is your answer.

  • John Marriott 2nd Jul '20 - 9:26am

    I’m not quite sure what the definition of ‘Working class’ is any more. In the states they tend to refer to ‘the middle classes’. How about so called ‘blue collar workers’? It used to be the case that politicians assumed that Labour was the natural home for the ‘workers’ and that socialism was their creed of choice. Don’t you believe it! As someone said when the Berlin Wall came down; “We are all capitalists now!”. The days of ‘When the boat comes in’ and workers’ brigades fighting in the Spanish Civil War are long gone. Idealism, of the left or the right, but especially the left, seems today to be largely the preserve of the so called Middle Classes. That doyenne of socialist rectitude, Ms Long Bailey, apparently lives on one of the poshest roads in Salford. And didn’t a certain Ms Abbott send her son to public school? At least JC was true to his beliefs, however misguided. Didn’t he leave one of his wives, because she wanted to send one of their sons to a Grammar School?

    The cynic might say that, if the party wanted to broaden its base, why is it going to choose as its next Leader between two products of the educational independent sector, no matter how worthy and sincere they may be? Why can’t it find someone like Angela Rayner, whose ‘Education’ has clearly come from the University of Life? I suppose that beggars can’t be choosers. You have to go with the matter at your disposal.

    All political parties are crammed full of products of the middle class, and so what? I grew up on a Council housing estate in Leicester. I went to grammar school (no choice back then) and was lucky enough to get into Cambridge University, where I encountered privilege in spades. Have I got a chip on my shoulder? Hopefully not. Some, however, might say that I’m evenly balanced because I have a chip on BOTH shoulders!

    So, what the Lib Dems should be doing is being themselves, and going after this built in privilege that still exists and calling it out. There are many people out there, regardless of so called class, who might just warm to a party that was honest about what it believed in and didn’t try to tell people what it thought was best for them. You could add that it would do itself no harm if it was prepared to admit that it didn’t have all the answers as well. I’m talking about a fair sake for all, whether they come from a stately home or a Council flat.

  • David, thanks for writing this. I too have found being working class a frustrating experience in the party. I think a lot of members feel uncomfortable with the notion of class, confining it to a politicised term belonging to the Labour Party.

    As you note, we often like to talk up our progressive credentials and prefer to talk in terms of ‘economic inequality’. This disconnects us from the very real and discrete interplay between economic conditions and culture. We should not ignore it, as it leaves us seeming to speak snobbily ‘for’ instead of ‘with’ people.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 10:13am

    @ John Marriott,

    “Idealism, of the left or the right, but especially the left, seems today to be largely the preserve of the so called Middle Classes.”

    Maybe part of the explanation is that us lefties tend to be more intelligent. It must be true because the Daily Mail says so 🙂

    So, we might well be born into what might be termed the “genuine working class” but we do have the ability to OK for ourselves and so move into what are generally regarded as “middle class” occupations.–conservative-politics-lead-people-racist.html

  • suzanne fletcher 2nd Jul '20 - 10:30am

    A good article, and the term “blue collar worker” is much better than “working class” which means little, and is not even accurate. I was annoyed to get a diversity survey from the region that asked me to self identify my class. I put “volunteer” down.
    I am taking the term BCW to be those who have a job, as opposed to those who don’t and are income poor for whatever reason. I’d have thought the key policy that helped working people was the raising of the income tax threshold.
    However there is more to it than that, and I think specific questions, clarifying exactly who you are talking about, to the leadership candidates is a good idea.
    Also the links with the trade union movement are important. the party is not good at using links with AOs and even giving some support and encouragement where needed, and where is ALDTU in all of this? not a criticism of them, but a thought about strengthening them if they want it ?
    As for keeping on, and feeling nobody is listening. Well doing some clearing out of old e-mails and worse, old documents I do wonder, but if you keep on you do make a difference, honest – just keep on David Warren, keep on.

  • Strongly agree with the article. There is a definite need for Liberalism to broaden it’s appeal.

    In general there is an issue across Europe and America that voters who would gain from redistributive policies are currently reluctant to vote for progressive parties.

    The reasons are partly because people don’t like being lectured to or having equality “done to them”. Instead there is a desire for autonomy and self-reliance which politicians of the centre-left don’t always grasp.

    Some would respond by dog-whistling on issues such as immigration or “getting behind” Brexit as being “in the national interest”. This approach seems popular with sections of the Labour Party but is completely wrong. It constructs the working class as older, white, English and living in suburban and rural areas.

    In reality the working class in Britain in 2020 is very diverse and includes people not born in the UK many of whom don’t have the right to vote or the right to claim public funds if they lose their jobs.

    Liberalism can provide an agenda that unifies working people in modern Britain rather than dividing them.

    Government should act to rebuild manufacturing and industry especially new green industries. There should be significant investment in affordable housing across a range of tenures – a real issue everywhere from inner London to seaside towns.

    However the real role of central government should be as an enabler of change that gives people the tools to change things for themselves.


  • (2)

    Localism is part of the solution but even local government can feel remote and detached from people’s lives so simply giving more power to councils may not be the answer.

    Instead there should be far more involvement of service users in the delivery of all public services and more powers and funding devolved to community groups. Issues such as constitutional changes and Britain’s place in the world should be dealt with through Citizen’s Conventions rather than divisive and populist referendums.

    Trade Unions could have a role if they want to advocate for workers as individual people and have a say in policy on lieu of industrial action.

    The nanny state should also be rolled back. We should not support public health policies like minimum alcohol pricing, sugar taxes or restrictions on gambling that are interfering but not proven to work.

    In short, give people the powers they need to bring about change but don’t interfere in people’s lifestyles.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 10:51am

    Is “blue collar worker” a more accurate term than “working class”?

    Look, the colour of anyone’s collar is neither here nor there. It’s just a euphemism. But a euphemism for what? Please, Lib Dems, say what you really mean!

  • Peter Watson 2nd Jul '20 - 11:24am

    @Linda Chung “it’s so strange that there is talk of “the working class”, and to say that we need them. Do “they” need us?”
    I think your post raises an important point about “the working class” and “ordinary people” in Lib Dem circles (and I must emphasise that I am thinking about discussions on this site and speeches by Lib Dems in general, not your post in particular): all too often it is “they” and “them”, not “we” and “us”.

  • Peter Watson 2nd Jul '20 - 11:31am

    @Michael Bukola “Retaining the working class in any great number has proven difficult in a post-Brexit climate where white transit van drivers and black taxi drivers too often are pro-Brexit.”
    I think that this was made much worse by Lib Dems implying that the opinions of those who supported Brexit was worth less because so many of them did not have university educations. Regardless of Brexit, that is not a good message to send to voters and potential supporters.

  • John Probert 2nd Jul '20 - 12:27pm

    Linda Chung has summed this up very neatly and concisely: “We are not separated by ‘class’ but levels of income, insecurity, decent housing, health, education.”

    How do we intend to tackle those issues? Let’s make a start with decent housing!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Jul '20 - 12:55pm

    Michael Bukola and Linda Chung are very insightful responding to our excellent David warren.

    I think that we as a country must get to where and this is a shame, we as a party are not, stop labelling!

    I am me. Even that is made up of much.

    I am not white first, or fair , or bearded, or male. i am a human being.So too are each of us in our own individual ways. By all means identify with others, but do so across colour or class.

    In my musical work Tom’s cabin, based on the novel of the slavery era, I write and have a song called, UBuntu, or ” I am because you are.” Each chorus begins with ” I am a man!” it was a phase that Black Americans adopted in the civil rights marches, it referred not to their gender, but their humanity. We need to bond in that way.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 1:38pm

    “We should not support public health policies like minimum alcohol pricing, sugar taxes or restrictions on gambling that are interfering but not proven to work.”

    This is right wing libertarianism. The right are no friends of the working class. By definition. They never have been.

    I can’t find the right words to describe the contempt we all should have for the gambling “industry”. They don’t create anything useful at all. The addiction they create can be more lethal than crack cocaine.

    There is estimated to be ten gambling related suicides every week.

  • Peter Martin claims my views are right wing then links to the Daily Mail, which is interesting.

    Ideas such as opposing nanny statism and censorship and supporting free speech were once seen as left wing but now viewed as right wing which is disheartening. I wonder what Mary Whitehouse would have made of it.

    I believe in individual freedom and that the state should only encroach on this freedom if it is absolutely necessary and proportionate to do so (hence the key line in my argument “not proven to work”).

    I don’t think that makes me a libertarian but if it does then I fully accept the label. A libertarian social democrat.

    Drinking and gambling have been part of the culture since time immemorial. There is no problem if you do it in moderation. We shouldn’t be restricting everyone just because a small number of people become addicted.

  • Peter Watson 2nd Jul '20 - 3:27pm

    @Marco “We should not support public health policies like minimum alcohol pricing, sugar taxes or restrictions on gambling that are interfering but not proven to work. In short, give people the powers they need to bring about change but don’t interfere in people’s lifestyles.”
    That begs the obvious question this year, what should be the liberal/Liberal response to the coronavirus pandemic?
    I am a little surprised (well OK, not really ;-)) that criticism of the Government by Lib Dems has more been that it should have locked down harder and faster rather than it should have relied upon educating the public and giving them freedom to choose whether or not to stay indoors.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 4:04pm

    @ Marco,

    The Daily Mail doesn’t always give out incorrect information. They can always manage to get the football results right for example. Speaking of football that’s another working class creation which has been adversely affected by the chasing of money – some of it the gambling industry. But there is a often genuine reaction from many supporters who protest and decide they don’t want some betting company to have their logo on their team’s shirts.

    Incidentally, there hasn’t always been a free for all with gambling. Gambling on horse racing was restricted to on-course until then 60s.

    If you prefer a more left wing source this article puts the death rate from suicides from gambling at even higher than the Mail. And of course your reaction will be to shrug your shoulders and say ‘so what’?

  • Peter Watson 2nd Jul '20 - 5:35pm

    On gambling, I was struck by the massive hypocrisy of the mainstream media (especially the Mail and Sun, etc.) back in the early noughties when the Labour Government was proposing a number of super-casinos around the country.
    The backlash and opposition was huge and those papers were running stories about the horrors of gambling. The only problem was that since we didn’t yet have any super-casinos, those tragic stories were invariably about the sort of betting on horse-racing, etc. that the same papers happily encouraged! Since then we’ve seen fixed odds betting machines and a huge rise in online gambling (especially when you include bingo). I’ve noticed that TV commercials now seem to integrate the “If the fun stops, stop” message as part of their promotion.
    I have to confess that I was once drawn into the perils of online gambling. The evening before the EU referendum I bet £100 on Brexit (I voted Remain but could see the writing was on the wall after a dismal campaign to remain in the EU that never got any better over the next 3-4 years). It’s the only bet I’ve ever placed, never having seen anything else so likely with such good odds against it!

  • @ Peter Martin

    I think you miss the point. Addiction is a mental health problem and the solution is better mental health treatment not regulating other people’s enjoyment.

    The historic root of restrictions on social “bads” is in moral conservatism and Puritanism and has nothing to do with concern with the welfare of addicts.

    @ Peter Watson yes agree completely it is disappointing that the Lib Dems have not stood up for civil liberties during the COVID crisis and I would argue many of the legal restrictions had little or no impact on containing the virus.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '20 - 6:27pm

    @ Marco,

    You’d very likely change your opinion very quickly if it was your child who had been damaged, or worse, because some multimillionaire wanted to become a billionaire.

    That’s why they set up their gambling empires. It’s nothing to do with wanting to create “enjoyment”.

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