“Everyone knows everyone” is the first rule of the Labour Party. They know each other; they’re related to each other; they sleep with each other; they marry each other.
From the local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) itself, kinship of one kind or another abounds. In a certain way, Labour is not unlike other specialist professions. After all, doctors’ children are 24 times more likely to become doctors than their peers, and while coffee-machine romance is on the slide, an appreciable number of people still meet their partners at work. But the interrelated nature of Labour’s politicians also represents something of an ideological dissonance: from its aim to banish such networks from public life.
And interrelated they undeniably are: let’s take a quick PLP tour. From the top, the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves is the sister of Lewisham MP Ellie Reeves, who is married to the PLP chair John Cryer. The shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper is married to the former MP and minister Ed Balls, and Maria Eagle MP is often seen sitting in the commons alongside her twin sister Angela (whose partner is the Trades Union Congress president Maria Exall). The Milibands’ fratricidal leadership contest in 2010 is painful party history; MPs Hilary Benn and Stephen Kinnock are both the sons of Labour big beasts; the uncle of Richard Burgon, secretary of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group in parliament, is a former Labour MP; and the Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake is the daughter of the Labour peer Judith Blake; I could go on and on, and on. Close-knitness is that rare thing in Labour: truly cross-factional.
Many Labour politicians, or aspirant ones, talk about their family histories, and how these are inextricably tied to the party and the movement. Rebecca Long-Bailey has discussed how her trade unionist father’s experience of redundancy when she was a child informed her politics; Luciana Berger named her son after her great-uncle, the former MP Manny Shinwell; references are made to deep-red family histories, and the phrase “good Labour family” is one used with distinct meaning and weight.
And why not? While being branded a Red Prince isn’t great for anyone attempting a Man (or Woman) of the People pose, these figures aren’t proud of their relations because they were powerful or wealthy, or because they lay claim to some blood lineage or title; they are proud because they committed themselves to the long, unglamorous cause of making life in Britain better and fairer for normal working people. They feel pride in their Labour families. They feel more strongly about their membership of the Labour Party than Conservatives do about their own affiliation. No one has ever said the Conservatives are a “moral crusade or they are nothing”; Toryism is, as Michael Oakeshott told us, more of a disposition than an ideology.
Labour is an ideology, but it is also a movement. If Conservatism is a hobby, Labour is close to a faith – one with roots in late-19th century ideas about the “religion of socialism” as an organising principle for spiritual and social as well as political life, with canvassing as its Sunday service, community halls as its churches, and party conference as something between synod and ghoulishly oversized village fete.
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It is not just pride, or the propensity to flock together with those of a specific and sincerely-held set of beliefs. There are also structural factors that lend themselves to Labour’s close-knit character. While there might be fewer Labour MPs than there are Conservatives, the Labour Party is a bigger social space. It has more members and more member engagement, more layers and meetings and points of potential association. While relations between the trade unions and Labour are not always harmonious, there remains significant overlap between their staffing and social worlds.
There is also a constellation of organisations that are, to varying degrees, connected to the Labour Party: from affiliates such as the Fabian Society and the Co-operative Party, to factional bodies like Progressive Britain and Momentum, and think tanks which functionally exist to hawk their ideological wares to Labour, including the IPPR, the New Economics Foundation and Compass. These are places to work and network, but they’re also places to socialise and form relationships. High-profile surname-sharers on the Labour benches attract the most attention, but Labour politicians are more likely to come with a spouse or relation from one of those attendant organisations.
Then there is the cold, hard politics. To be selected as a Conservative candidate, you simply need to get on the approved list and begin applying for seats. It’s a centralised, top-down affair, and explains why business people or army officers with little political history are more likely to walk into a Conservative seat – because the cut of their jib is favourable. Labour’s internal democracy is much-critiqued, but it is more substantive than the Tories. To be selected as a Labour candidate, you should have endorsements from trade unions and affiliated socialist societies, and you must understand (and know some people involved in the moving parts of) the large and often opaque party bureaucracy.
You will also need to show commitment to the cause, clocking in hours on the doorstep or serving on CLP executives. You will need to embed yourself, make the party your home, and try to make its members choose you and its structures work in your favour. It may still reject you – it’s likely to, given the maths involved in how many people apply and how many are selected – but you won’t get anywhere without going through that.
The acronyms and processes add up – do you know what the CAC is, or the NPF? What’s a Warp sheet, and further to that, what’s a Reading pad? What’s the difference between a CLP EC and a CLP GC, and how do you get on them? If Labour is a way of life, it’s one with a language. And, like most languages, one that’s most fluently spoken by those who have been taught from birth.
A double-purpose professional and personal world in which relationships risk bleeding into nepotism and cronyism – or accusations of such – is not unique to Labour, or even to politics. But Labour’s distinctive internal culture, and its own interest in that culture and history (it’s a truism that you can better understand any given work of modern British history by first asking, “What argument about the Labour Party is the author conducting?”) serves to emphasise the party’s socially concentrated nature.
While no one wants their bread and roses alone, this concentration does present something of a political catch-22 for a party whose ideological project is focused on ending hereditary privilege and clamping down on old boys’ networks.