This week sees the release of the 12 -time Oscar nominated film Lincoln in which Daniel Day Lewis portrays the 16th President of the United States of America - Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s name will long be remembered for a host of reasons, not least for saving the union and enacting the 13th Amendment to end slavery. But in terms of oratorical genius at least, it was his Gettysburg address for which he is most revered.
On November 19, 1863, on a freezing cold day in Pennsylvania, Lincoln coined a phrase that would become a political benchmark for all who followed, when he proclaimed that under a new birth, America would certify a; “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Equality of opportunity dogged Lincoln’s presidency as he fought to end slavery on legal, not humanitarian reasons, despite his belief in the moral high ground. Such a topic remains prevalent in today’s political arena as we fight to enable and enrich people from all backgrounds to fulfil their full potential and contribute to a vibrant democratic society.
Lincoln’s lines are still used in political circles today, including the Westminster bubble. His commitment and devotion to democracy and the rule of law was underpinned by his faith that all men are born equal. But in terms of life chances, are all men (and women) equal in our society?
In a 2013 Westminster, equality of opportunity remains a distant aspiration with the ladders of social mobility not yet reaching Parliament. The House of Commons is packed with Oxbridge educated former special advisors, London lawyers, middle-class rich kids and, for at least an entire previous Parliamentary term, more men with the forename ‘John’ than women MPs! We need to work harder to make politics both more representative and more accessible to all who wish to engage and progress.
Lincoln’s reference to: “four score and seven years ago” may well have been about the 87 years that had elapsed between the Declaration of Independence and his Gettysburg address, but for illustrative purposes it is near enough to the historical date of the first ever Labour administration when our Party primarily selected candidates from traditional working class backgrounds.
But before there is any accusation of inverted snobbery, I don’ have an issue with political careerists per se. There are a number of MPs who, through their own hard work in state schools, have acquired places at universities, worked for MPs in Parliament and are now on the benches themselves. They bring an experience that is invaluable. Indeed, the very first Labour Government included an eclectic mix of people, some of whom were manual workers, but others who were academics.
I do not have an issue with an individual members’ background. I do, however, have an issue with the imbalance in the composition of MPs over the last three decades in which the careerists have far outweighed the ordinary man or women in parliament.
One of the ‘traditional’ pathways to Westminster was where a Union identified candidates who were talented and vocal in their locality, and assisted them to secure nominations for seats, perhaps gathering the support of a local incumbent MP, ensuring a smooth transition in the best interest of constituents.
Margaret Thatcher’s demonisation of the Trade Union movement was an attempt to weaken workers’ political voices and diminish the power that the movement had, though she failed to eradicate it completely as she set out to do. But as the number of MPs who come from working class origins has declined, at the other end of the spectrum there has been an exponential growth in careerists. Ambition in itself is not a bad thing, but it is wrong for some people whose only ambition in life is to climb the political greasy pole
The reality is that the House of Commons is all the worse for its narrowing demographic. Parliamentarians and political parties can preach about the need to reform and the need to increase representation, but until there is the collective will to do something about it, MPs will continue to be selected from a very shallow socio-economic pool.
Parliament can never hope to accurately articulate the concerns of working class people unless there is a significant increase of working class representation on the Green benches. For instance, if the Government benches right now had more people who came from ordinary backgrounds, then I doubt very much that they would so easily rise to brandish people on low pay or jobseekers allowance as “shirkers”.
Labour lost in 2010 partly because we lost the trust of large swathes of ordinary working people who didn’t feel that the party spoke for them anymore, and Cameron’s Tories cashed in with their usual game of divide and rule.
Ed Miliband was right to say we need to diversify our selection process and that we need greater diversity including more working class and women MPs. With over 4 million Trade Union members, Labour has the distinct advantage of drawing on the talent of an already politically active group of people within the Labour movement.
But perhaps the biggest advantage is that the vast majority of Trade Union members share our values. They believe in workers’ rights, equality of opportunity and a future fair for all. But it is up to us to seize the advantage given to us by a group of people who believe in traditional Labour values. Developing schemes such as the future candidates programme is vital but in itself, is not enough.
What the Labour Party doesn’t do well enough yet is support local candidates and provide them with training and guidance. As MPs and Party staff, we must be actively going to local branch meetings, CLP meetings, full council meetings and town hall meetings (wherever possible) – not just in our constituencies, but across the country – and we should be identifying talented councillors and TU Brothers and Sisters who need guidance and support to be developed as the next generation of Labour MPs.
For many people within our movement, a life in frontline politics is appealing but simply not practical for financial, family of employment reasons. When we ask our candidates to give up two, three, four years of their lives, without any guarantees of winning a seat, they incur considerable cost with campaigns, travel and accommodation expenses. Whilst such factors are superficial for Tory millionaire candidates, or candidates from the well-healed middle classes, it is a significant hurdle for many prospective candidates to overcome.
So finance is a huge challenge and we need our Trade Unions to be assisting their candidates fully in conjunction with the national party, to ensure that no one who has a contribution to make to Labour is priced out of politics.
When you consider that the House of Commons library says the number of working class MPs has dropped 75 per cent to just 25 current MPs, (22 of them Labour), since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, you recognise the scale of the challenge we face and the depth of disconnect.
It is not enough for the Labour Party to make the right noises about working class candidates and then expect them to just turn up at selection meetings. We need to put the party at the service of our people.
And it is a two way process. Right now, many working class people from across the country, will be disillusioned with politics and more depressingly, unaware of how they can make a difference. As councils begin the selection process for the Local Elections in May, people from all backgrounds should be encouraged to submit applications to their local party.
Labour was founded by people who chose solidarity over selfishness. We commit as members to a political ideology that believes the state and organisation can be a vehicle for good by putting in place the ladders of social mobility which allow all who choose, the chance to climb. We are still for the many, not the few and we will be all the better when our Party better reflects the movement from which we are drawn.