How Labour is re-engaging non-voters

The party is responding to the sense that governments are powerless in the face of vested interests.

My election as the MP for Manchester Central has the unfortunate record of being the lowest turnout for a by-election, indeed any election, since the Second World War. In my constituency, turnout is particularly low in areas with high numbers of young people and students like Hulme and Ardwick.  

Our politics is broken, with turnout falling and people disengaged and switched off from politicians and the political process, but do developments over the last few weeks offer a turning point?

I’m part of the People's Politics Inquiry, the Labour Party's policy review on political engagement, I have been keen to speak to younger voters, or non-voters in most cases. What I've found, while not unsurprising, is telling and is making me re-think how I do things, and how we as a Pprty could start to address some of the issues.

I arranged to visit a Street League group of young people in my constituency to engage them in a discussion.  Street League is a charity which uses football to get 16-25-year-olds into work and training. Only one of the eight lads I met had ever voted but he couldn’t remember who for or why. At first they were sceptical about meeting and hearing from an MP. but what quickly unfolded was a highly political and informed discussion. They were intensely interested and knowledgeable in what was happening in their own communities, as well as national issues.  

Their views of politicians were familiar: we are all the same; we avoid answering questions; we don't look and sound like them; we don't understand their lives.  Even though these are familiar refrains, it's still depressing. On politics more generally, they don't vote or participate quite simply because they don't see politics as a vehicle for change.

They found me different to their perceptions of a politician but they still didn’t see me as being able to deliver change for them. They didn’t see that the choice of which party was in power mattered for their communities. They wanted to see politicians and parties rooted in their communities. Physically present amongst them, not just on the airwaves or on social media. 

The group felt that politicians were part of a cosy club, which ensures that all their interests are looked after while everyone else pays the price. 

I take from my conversations that, yes, we must continue efforts to diversify our stock of politicians, but, perhaps importantly, we need to encourage and help create a political culture that allows for difference, for greater freedom to be outspoken and to live normal lives with their inherent mistakes. This isn't just a challenge for political parties but also for those who follow and report on politics. That’s why Ed Miliband’s stance on the Mail is such an important marker. Politicians and their families must be allowed to have lives.

On policy, we need to be bigger and bolder in our politics. The lads from Street League articulated what many others feel: that the power of politics and governments is increasingly limited in the face of vested interests – global financial markets, big business, train and energy companies and so on. Ed Miliband's ambitious challenge to these cosy clubs, as he showed with the energy companies last week, is very important here. We must continue to flesh out a bold policy programme across a range of areas as we build on what has the potential to be a powerful and popular cause.

Ed Miliband is on to something. I will continue my dialogue with non-voters to see how they respond to this new direction as we build towards the general election and beyond, taking action for the many against the vested interests of the powerful. 

Delegates walk past a banner outside the Labour conference on September 23, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn: “wholesale” EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers

The Labour leader has told Andrew Marr that his party wants to leave the single market.

Mass immigration from the European Union has been used to "destroy" the conditions of British workers, Jeremy Corbyn said today. 

The Labour leader was pressed on his party's attitude to immigration on the Andrew Marr programme. He reiterated his belief that Britain should leave the Single Market, claiming that "the single market is dependent on membership of the EU . . . the two things are inextricably linked."

Corbyn said that Labour would argue for "tarriff-free trade access" instead. However, other countries which enjoy this kind of deal, such as Norway, do so by accepting the "four freedoms" of the single market, which include freedom of movement for people. Labour MP Chuka Umunna has led a parliamentary attempt to keep Britain in the single market, arguing that 66 per cent of Labour members want to stay. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said that "Labour's failure to stand up for common sense on single market will make them as culpable as Tories for Brexit disaster".

Laying out the case for leaving the single market, Corbyn used language we have rarely heard from him - blaming immigration for harming the lives of British workers.

The Labour leader said that after leaving the EU, there would still be European workers in Britain and vice versa. He added: "What there wouldn't be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry." 

Corbyn said he would prevent agencies from advertising jobs in central Europe - asking them to "advertise in the locality first". This idea draws on the "Preston model" adopted by that local authority, of trying to prioritise local suppliers for public sector contracts. The rules of the EU prevent this approach, seeing it as discrimination. 

In the future, foreign workers would "come here on the basis of the jobs available and their skill sets to go with it. What we wouldn't allow is this practice by agencies, who are quite disgraceful they way they do it - recruit a workforce, low paid - and bring them here in order to dismiss an existing workforce in the construction industry, then pay them low wages. It's appalling. And the only people who benefit are the companies."

Corbyn also said that a government led by him "would guarantee the right of EU nationals to remain here, including a right of family reunion" and would hope for a reciprocal arrangement from the EU for British citizens abroad. 

Matt Holehouse, the UK/EU correspondent for MLex, said Corbyn's phrasing was "Ukippy". 

Asked by Andrew Marr if he had sympathy with Eurosceptics - having voted against previous EU treaties such as Maastricht - Corbyn clarified his stance on the EU. He was against a "deregulated free market across Europe", he said, but supported the "social" aspects of the EU, such as workers' rights. However, he did not like its opposition to state subsidy of industry.

On student fees, Corbyn was asked "What did you mean by 'I will deal with it'?". He said "recognised" that graduates faced a huge burden from paying off their fees but did not make a manifesto commitment to forgive the debt from previous years. However, Labour would abolish student debt from the time it was elected. Had it won the 2017 election, students in the 2017/18 intake would not pay fees (or these would be refunded). 

The interview also covered the BBC gender pay gap. Corbyn said that Labour would look at a gender pay audit in every company, and a pay ratio - no one could receive more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee. "The BBC needs to look at itself . . . the pay gap is astronomical," he added. 

He added that he did not think it was "sustainable" for the government to give the DUP £1.5bn and was looking forward to another election.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.