Labour’s future success is dependent on its diversity, writes Christabel Cooper
Earlier this month, Professor Tim Bale published findings showing that members of political parties are considerably whiter and more middle class than the population in general. Disappointingly, Labour is no exception.
It is ironic that with eight per cent of members of parliament now coming from a minority ethnic background, the House of Commons contains a greater proportion of BAME people than any political party. Eight per cent is still well short of the 13 per cent – the proportion of BAME people in the general population. We are, however, making progress – 11 more BAME MPs were elected between 2015 and 2017.
Class representation is more difficult to define, and thus more difficult to measure. Pollsters base their definition on occupation, which misses many nuances of lifestyle and education and does not account for groups such as students or stay-at-home parents. The traditional route for working class people into politics came through the trade union movement, but the number of union members has fallen by more than half since 1979. Perhaps the biggest barrier to Labour using more explicit strategies to encourage working class people to become involved in politics is embarrassment. It seems grotesque that a party born out of the labour movement should need to do this. We should have the courage to overcome that discomfort and offer more explicit support to aspiring working class candidates.
The composition of the membership matters for reasons other than simply ensuring diversity among elected representatives. Members have an important role to play in policy making within the Labour party, and determine the leadership in all political parties. We are currently in the absurd position that if Theresa May steps down before the next general election, Britain’s next prime minister will be chosen by as few as 70,000 Tory members.
Members are also the public face of the party on doorsteps up and down the country. The increasing importance of social media means that even members who do not take part in traditional campaigning activities can have a considerable impact (as we saw in the 2017 general election). Non-white, non-middle class voters will find it hard to warm to a party which does not contain many people like them.
It will not be easy to combat minority perceptions of the Labour party as alien to diversity. However, we have demonstrated our effectiveness at using social media to speak to hard-to-reach voters, and should use these to portray a diverse and inclusive vision of membership. Furthermore, many constituency Labour parties have good links with local organisations and local issues-based campaigns. These will likely contain a more diverse range of people who already believe in change through activism – exactly the kind of people we need in the Labour party.
Party membership is defined too often as consisting only of attending meetings and campaigning. We should remember that it requires a level of self-confidence to speak up in a full room or knock on a stranger’s door. At the moment ‘socials’ are often an afterthought for many CLPs; heretical as it may seem to those of us who regard branch meetings as the ideal night out, we should try to make local meetings more ‘fun’, according to the dictionary definition of the word.
The irony of the political world is that the people inside it spend so much time trying to understand ordinary voters. This would be far easier if their members were representative of the nation as a whole.
Christabel Cooper is a member of the Progress strategy board. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops
Photo: UK Parliament