Thursday, 1 October 2015

The six tribes of Labour

At the end of the most interesting Labour Conference for a couple of decades, the media is focussing on divisions between the left and right in the party, mainly over Trident, but also to a lesser extent over Europe, Syria and the economy.

Those divisions are real and important but what's often overlooked is the differences in background and class that have shaped Labour politics throughout the party's history. I can think of half a dozen such groups in the party:

1. Upper middle-class Nonconformists, often from a Radical Liberal background: tend to the left and towards vegetarianism, teetotalism, pacifism and mild eccentricity. Tony Benn and Michael Foot are the classic examples.

2. Middle-class professionals, especially academics, journalists and lawyers: tend to the right. Current examples include Tristram Hunt, Gerald Kaufman and Keir Starmer, and in the past Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, Jack Straw, John Smith, Bryan Gould, Paul Boateng, Jack Cunningham, Harold Wilson, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins.

3. Working-class, former blue collar trade union officials: to be found on the right (Alan Johnson, and in the past Ernest Bevin) as well as on the left of the party (Ian Lavery, David Anderson, and in the past John Prescott, Eric Heffer and Aneurin Bevan).

4. Working-class, former white collar trade union officials or activists in local government, the public and voluntary sector or campaigns and pressure groups: tend to the left. Current examples include Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, and in the past Ken Livingstone, Tony Banks, David Blunkett and George Galloway.

5. Politicos/staffers/policy wonks: people who've never had a job outside Westminster, graduating straight from student politics to working for a MP or a left-of-centre think tank, in the party or an affiliated trade union's research unit or as a speechwriter or special adviser to a minister. Lots of current examples including Andy Burnham, Stella Creasy and Tom Watson, and in the past Ed Balls, both Miliband brothers and Denis Healey. Tend to be lower to upper middle-class, occasionally working-class, and on the right of the party. The network of ex-NOLSies (members of the National Organisation of Labour Students) who came from this background were key to creating the New Labour project in the early to mid 90's.

6. Business donors: not many examples, but, unsurprisingly, influential, at least in the recent past, given their ability to donate large sums to the party's coffers and access to other fundraising contacts and networks: Geoffrey Robinson, Lord Levy, Lord Sainsbury.

I'm sure I've missed a few people out and there are of course others who fit into more than one category: Corbyn is a mixture of 1. and 4. and both Benn and Foot worked as journalists too. Let's hope that in the future we see more of 3. and 4. and a lot less of 2. 6., and especially 5.


  1. So Denis Healey "never had a job outside Westminster". I suppose serving as a major in the Royal Engineers in the North African campaign and in the invasions of Sicily and Italy (where he was a military landing officer) doesn't count as a job. I must check my dictionary and remind myself what a job is.

  2. I'm no longer a Labour Party member, but I can't see which category I'd fit in if I were.

    1. 4. Left-wing former public sector trade union officials and activists.