Labour’s Identity Crisis
On Newsnight last week, Gillian Duffy, the 71-year-old branded 'a sort of bigoted woman' by Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign, was interviewed in a segment on the European Union referendum. The EU, Duffy claimed, wasted 'trillions' each year, but she also said she was 'frightened of losing our identity, that’s what I’m afraid of, we’ll never get England back to how it was.'
In the five years since Brown’s gaffe, Duffy has been hunted down repeatedly by journalists, to be asked her views on Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, the direction of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn’sleadership and now the EU referendum. Duffy’s insights into politics aren’t groundbreaking in their perspicacity: she’s treated as a curio, trotted out as a bellwether of working-class feeling. For journalists and MPs, Duffy is a way of ventriloquising right-wing sentiments, so they don't have to voice them personally. The trope of the taxi driver who ‘tells it like it is’ (Michael Crick is a recent offender) is beyond cliché, but it persists because for many people in the political world, sitting in the back of a taxi is the only time they’re forced to speak to a working-class person for more than a minute.
It’s handy for politicians to find a working-class voter who happily attacks their political enemies and complains bitterly about ‘metropolitan liberals’. As a reporter who grew up in one of the poorest cities in Britain, and spends time writing on poverty, and travelling to hard-hit post-industrial towns and villages, I hear a huge diversity of political opinion around the country. But for Tristram Hunt, a man so in tune with the working class that he once crossed a picket line to give a lecture on Marx, this isn’t the case.
Hunt is concerned that 'Labour doesn't speak for England,' and thinks this is a 'sentiment repeated across the country'. The working classes are supposedly anti-metropolitan (read: anti-immigration) and worried about Englishness, clamouring for more English nationalism and patriotism, but that can't explain Labour’s recent electoral defeats in Wales, or complete devastation in Scotland. (Though it's possible that opposition to metropolitan elites explains the low turnout in 2015 in Stoke-on-Trent Central, the only place in the country where it dropped below 50 per cent. The MP, Tristram Hunt, was elected with the backing of fewer than 20 per cent of his constituents.)
Labour's Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism, edited by Hunt, has contributions from a host of MPs and unsuccessful candidates on Labour’s ‘identity problem’.But it boils down to an attack on Labour’s leadership for being too left wing. One failed candidate claims campaigners were 'viewed like middle-class Ryanair passengers having to stomach a couple of hours’ flight with people they shared little in common with; it could be uncomfortable, but it got you where you needed to go.'
The son of a baron, Hunt went to private school and Cambridge before becoming an MP: it’s odd that criticisms of ‘metropolitan elites’ in the party ignore his position. 'You are the top 1 percent,' Hunt recently told Cambridge students. 'The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.' Odd words for a sudden champion of the working classes.
Labour does have a problem regaining working-class votes: this isn’t a sudden phenomenon linked to Corbyn, but a long-term one with roots in the New Labour project. Hunt doesn't have the solution because he's part of the problem. Treating working-class people like Gillian Duffy and fictional cab drivers as quaint but racist oracles isn’t the way to win votes. A better place to start would be with more working-class MPs.
Read more in the London Review of Books