Working Class Candidate Shortlists

I have a confession to make. Before I got involved in politics, I thought I was Middle Class. After all, my parents were teachers, they were owner occupiers and we lived in a nice village in the Midlands.

After I got involved in the Labour Party, I learnt that I was, in fact, Working Class. My family had lived in the same coalmining village for 7 generations and many of my family – including my dad – had worked in the mines. They had been involved in the General Strike and the Jarrow Marches.

More to the point, my parents were teachers (note repetition!) and I attended my local LEA Comprehensive School. I attended a Red Brick University, not Oxbridge. I work in the Energy Industry and my husband works two jobs in retail on low paid and insecure contracts. We live in the private rented sector and have little hope of becoming owner occupiers for the foreseeable future.

Pretty much everyone in the Labour Party can make a case for why they are Working Class. Even the daughter of a multi-millionaire can find a grandparent somewhere who went through hardship at some point.

Moreover, the Special Advisors, the Parliamentary Assistants, the Think Tank Researchers, the NUS Presidents, the Islington Councillors – the very people we say we want less of in the Parliamentary Labour Party – often have very powerful back stories. Take West Streeting MP, the former NUS President whose entire campaign in Ilford North was rooted in his own “rags-to-riches” life story. Or former Special Advisor Michael Dugher who grew up on the South Yorkshire coalfield during the 1980s.

For myself, I think members of my very vast extended family would find it frankly hilarious if I over-played my Working Class credentials. Social Class is, in one respect, relative. To my aunt and cousins who live in Toxteth in Liverpool, my childhood was practically aristocratic!

But equally, when I see people whose working class credentials are a whole lot weaker than mine successfully play the Citizen Smith card – and even secure trade union backing on that basis – I am left wondering whether we are approaching the problem of diverse parliamentary representation from the wrong angle.

I don’t believe Labour’s problem is that it doesn’t have enough people who grew up on council estates representing them in parliament. We certainly could do with more bricklayers, retail workers, care workers, technicians and drivers.

But we could also do with more scientists, engineers, doctors, dentists, teachers, accountants, and business leaders. Not just for diversity’s sake but because it would lead to better policymaking. Who would you prefer had more say in shaping Health policy? A 25 year old PPE graduate or 45 year old former doctor? Think of the impact Tory MP and former doctor, Sarah Wollaston has had.

Moreover, having this kind of diversity would make us better at communicating our policies to the wider public – away from the pointy-headed policy wonk speak – and towards a more authentic voice that talks about the real issues voters face in a language that communicates real empathy.

But aside from the money, this second group of graduate professionals face just the same barriers as those in more working class trades. Most can’t take 6-8 weeks off work to fight a parliamentary selection. Or if selected take a lengthier sabbatical to fight a General Election in a key seat. Many have tried and their careers, bank balance and families have the deep scars to prove it.

For years, the Labour Party said it wanted more women in parliament, but it eventually reached the point where it knew it had to change the rule to make it happen. Warm words and aspirations weren’t enough. So the party brought in All Women Shortlists to force the issue.

In the same way, if we want to professionally diversify parliament then we need to change the rules. When faced with a dynamic and polished Special Advisor who has knocked on their door and sent them a shiny leaflet, most CLPs’ complaints about “career politicians” get thrown out of the window.

But Working Class Shortlists are not the answer because we could never agree, as a party, who qualified as working class.

What I believe would be more effective would be to amend the PPC person specification so that all aspiring candidates are required to have a minimum of five years’ work experience in a field other than politics. “Working in politics” would be defined in the broadest possible terms to include Labour Party and Trade Union employees, staff of MPs and peers, employees of think tanks and political campaigning organisations and political employees of local councils. Local councillors themselves would be specifically excluded. This might mean that the average age of a PPC increases by about 10 years but I believe that would all be to the good, ensuring our political representatives are wiser and more rounded as individuals.

But we also need to radically change the selection process – and here we are are up against the full force of vested interests within the party. Some of our best MPs: Harriet Harman, Seema Malhotra, Steve Reed came into parliament at by-elections. But we can complete a by-election selection in a matter of days. So a very short selection procedure doesn’t result in a lower quality of candidate being selected. I believe we should be able to complete a General Election selection process within a week. By doing this, we would remove the advantage that those with organisational backing have in the process and also enable those who don’t work in politics to compete on a level playing field.

Thirdly, we need to increase the support we provide to selected candidates. We should set up a Candidate Support Unit that is staffed by financial advisors, welfare advisors, employment advisors, counsellors, doctors, recruitment consultants. There needs to be a place that candidates can turn to when the demands of the campaign affect the day job or their marriage or put their mortgage at risk. Or the stress begins to affect their mental health. Too often, candidates suffer in silence and then after an election, escape as fast as they can to “normality” rather than continue to be an asset to the party. And when this happens, it is the Labour Party that is poorer.

As the Labour Party begins its next chapter, it needs to move beyond the old comfort zones. We can laugh to ourselves at the continued misuse of the term “working class” by those who wish only to further their own political agendas. Or we can challenge the vested interests and the old certainties and choose to change. But if we’re going to continue to complain about the number of Special Advisors at the top of Labour Party then we need to be prepared to take the necessary action to change it. If not, we should forever hold our peace.