AT last Ed Miliband has spoken a bit of sense, with his vow to crack down on rogue employment agencies. His promise to get tough with the companies which exploit workers with zero-hours contracts, under-cut wages and generally treat decent, hard-working people like factory fodder is certainly a step in the right direction.
It’s not glamorous. It’s not the stuff of big-ticket debate. It will probably be exceedingly difficult to put into practice should he manage the colossal feat of eventually becoming Prime Minister. However, if he wants to appeal to “the workers” as he says he does, it’s the kind of nitty-gritty issue he must get to grips with. Until this glimmer of hope, he has struggled terribly to connect with the concerns of ordinary people.
Who would have thought that appealing to “workers”, would be such a major challenge for the leader of the Labour party though? The party was set up partly by the trades unions with the aim of supporting the working class. Surely, this connection should come as second nature.
Unfortunately, Mr Miliband’s struggles with marching behind the banner show just how far the leadership of the party – and to a great extent, its MPs – have become estranged from those they purport to represent. We need look no further than Emily Thornberry’s recent remarks about “white van man” for evidence of this. The MP for Islington South made a massive miscalculation about the kind of people who drive white vans and display England flags in their windows, and found herself sacked from her post as Shadow Attorney General as a result.
David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and London mayoral hopeful, has recently voiced the point many of us have been thinking for years: “by and large, modern Labour politicians come from liberal, professional backgrounds... they travel abroad. Mix in social circles with people who work in multinational companies... and find diversity enriching. Much of Labour’s traditional electoral base does not feel this way.”
This is tricky enough. However, what we have got here is double trouble. While Labour MPs have become ever more elite, the working class has diversified beyond all previous recognition. Miliband’s attempt to appeal to the workers is laudable, but he must not make sweeping generalisations and assumptions. He should be focusing all his attention on this major issue – just who are these workers he seeks to appeal to?
It is frightening how slow Miliband and his inner circle have been to cotton on to the fact that all previous definitions no longer apply. Now they are struggling to play catch-up they have much to get to grips with. It is an immensely complicated situation, which differs in detail up and down the country but has several defining characteristics.
It has its roots in the economy, of course, but also has much to do with values and beliefs. As the debacle over white van man proved, this comes to a sharp point with immigration. The Labour leadership has been guilty of a massive miscalculation over British hearts and minds. Only now, with the success of Ukip in several by-elections, is it beginning to accept that its supporters might not be a tolerant as it assumed. It is not just this controversial issue though. Just how does Miliband’s Labour party appeal to a voter with a mother in a care home, a daughter at the mercy of university fees and a house which will never be paid for?
It is a complex situation which demands a series of complex responses in return.
The decline of public services has meant that no-one has a job for life any more, guaranteed benefits or much security to take for granted. The dustmen, the school cleaners, the office workers and the maintenance men who keep the wheels of our towns and cities turning are all likely to be privatised. The youngsters who leave school with few qualifications are likely to end up on the books of an employment agency or working for a big organisation at liberty to ring them only when it suits them. The self-employed builder or plumber wears several hats: independent trader, generating his own income and perhaps providing employment for several other people, yet wedded to certain values which we might class as working class – a belief in the NHS for example, and suspicion of “foreigners” who come here to work.
And, of course, Britain has become an incredibly ethnically-diverse place. This is where the headaches are really starting to build for Miliband. The armies of early-morning cleaners from Africa. The fruit-pickers and the vegetable-sorters from Eastern Europe. The countless numbers of immigrants who toil in factories and takeaways and taxi firms under the radar of HM Revenue and Customs for wages which are barely life-sustaining.
How he brings every one of these under the banner of “Labour supporter” is a challenge which far surpasses that of working out the price of a weekly shop.