Ed Miliband and class; empathy is not enough….
This question caught my eye from a Sun interview given by our new leader. Asked why Labour can’t find a working class candidate, Ed responded;
When you go into politics, I don’t think you can claim to be working class. You become part of the middle classes in the very least. But you have someone who can understand anybody’s life whatever background they are from. I hope I’m someone who can do that. It’s not where you come from, it’s about your level of understanding of people’s lives and ability to help change them. That’s what I’m in politics for.
Of course, he is quite right that it is possible to empathise with the working class without being a calloused hand son of toil (although there is a hairline distinction exists between direct experience and empathy). Given MP’s social status he is also quite right that once you enter politics even the most flea-bitten member of the working classes does enter the middle classes. However, he slightly misses the point in that regardless there are serious structural barriers to the working class entering a political career. Politics in just about every way possible discriminates against working class candidates and entry into politics. This is certainly my experience of even the Labour Party (indeed, rather worryingly, when I was trying to think of MPs from working class origins I mustered more Conservatives to my mind than I could Labour representatives). To enter politics you need money behind you either to run as a candidate or serve the usually financially un-rewarded apprenticeship as an intern.
This is not all the political parties fault. Despite claims to the contrary the electorate expects their representatives to be somehow different and somehow better than them. People do not want, if they were honest, to be represented by somebody who is ‘one of them’; they want to be represented by somebody they can look-up too and place on a pedestal. This is why the fall from grace after the expenses scandal was all the more dramatic; it wasn’t just that MP’s were on the make but the deep bitterness of the electorate stemmed from the scales falling from their collective eyes as their supposed betters were found, in some cases, to be significantly worse. The standards that the public applies to those in its service is much higher than it often expects of itself.
It may not be all the political parties fault but it is to them the task of changing this situation falls. Labour especially as a Party meant to represent and serve the interests of the wider movement. Ed Miliband is right about his ability to empathise; however, he must not let that disarm him when it comes to taking concrete action. Things like the Labour Diversity Fund should be taken-up and broadened by moves to make the internal Party a genuine meritocracy. Empathy is not enough; there needs to be action too….