White van man (or woman) and the Labour Party

28th November 2014

I must admit I was totally at a loss when the White Van Man story broke during the Rochester bye-election. A photo of Dan Ware's family home got the political classes all a-twitter. Just what was so wrong about the picture tweeted by a Labour shadow minister Emily Thornberry? A house, a white van and a collection of England flags. And the message? Hmmm. That was the problem. The message is what people read into the picture. Labour is sneering at… whom? Ok, for a public figure, the tweet was misguided. It was a picture of a family home that was readily identified by the wider press, not really fair on the family. It was the picture of the home of a serious England football supporter.

Personally, I think that only people who should be hanging their heads in shame are those who run the Football Association for their incompetence. Mr Ware and all of us are consistently let down by the lack-lustre performance of England's football team. Come on, we have world class athletes because of world-class organisation. And the Football Association? Just as well they were not running the 2012 Olympic Games. We would still be waiting for the venues to be finished. And as for winning medals… If we as a nation are capable of fielding a world class athletics team, ought we not be capable of fielding a world class football team?

But that is enough of football. The story of Dan Ware and his white van has some serious lessons for all the political parties, especially the Labour Party. There is no evidence that Mr Ware is a political animal. It is extremely unlikely, that however much the political parties begged and pleaded and sucked up to Mr Ware, he would have voted at all in this bye-election. Mr Ware, like a sizeable proportion of the population, does not belong to the voting classes, and it is the voting classes who matter in any election.

And just who are the voting classes? Some people have their favourite teams, just like Mr Ware, and they will vote consistently for their team. Switching allegiances to another team seldom happens. If your team disappoints, you just don't vote. But why the allegiance in the first place? Perhaps it is something to do with class, a great British preoccupation. It is more to do with people like me, and people who share my dreams and aspirations, and people who understand my fears. And then there is the consumerist aspect. I vote for the candidate/party who will do the most for me and my family, a secondary factor may well be who will do the best for my country. And also there is ideology. A shared vision, a shared vision – I vote for the party/candidate who shares my beliefs. Complex. All political parties are out to get your vote, and are determined to show that they are people like you and me.

For too long the Labour party has not looked at what s really happening out there in the constituencies. If a voter votes for a party who is "most like me", then it is even more so for membership of political parties. Imagine Mr Ware turning up at a constituency party meeting. Mr Ware is self-employed, with several business ventures. He is not anti-capitalist, he does not have great allegiance to the collective power of the trade unionists, and he is English working class of working age. All of which sort of excludes him from membership of the Labour party, and the Conservative party. Lib Dems? No. UKIP perhaps? A young party, with no clearly defined membership profile? If Mr Ware decided to join a political party, this is probably the party he would join.

This is the problem for the Labour Party, the roots of which are an alliance of the interests of the working classes in a bygone age and those who bought into an ideology which promoted a more equal and just society. The key is the bygone age. The lives of working class people has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Industry is not what it used to be. Employment is more fragmented. Collectivism only exists in a few places. And so the Labour Party has become the domain of public servants, health workers and some trade unionists. White Van man, the self employed tradesman does not fit into this picture at all.

Both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher understood a fundamental truth of our democracy, that people have aspirations, that people want autonomy and the tools to be able to support themselves and their families. Unless the Labour Party looks again at the legacy of Tony Blair and his Mondeo Man, the Labour party will replace the Lib Dems as the rump third party in our democracy.

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