Senior Labour figures attempted to rebut claims that the party was out of touch with working class voters on Saturday as Ukip’s newest MP predicted they would take more seats from Labour than the Conservatives in next year’s general election.
Former Labour cabinet minister Hazel Blears defended Ed Miliband’s decision to sack the shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, for tweeting a picture of a house decked out in St George’s flags, which prompted claims that the party had lost touch with its working class roots.
Her comments came as Mark Reckless, who became Ukip’s second MP this week after winning the Rochester and Strood byelection, claimed that his party was more likely to take seats from Labour and than the Conservatives in next year’s general election.
Reckless said last month’s Heywood and Middleton byelection – where Ukip came within 600 votes of capturing the constituency – showed the effect on Labour could be much more significant.
“We can actually win seats in Labour areas from people who would never dream of voting Conservative,” he said.
Blears told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Miliband was “genuinely angry” about Thornberry’s tweet and insisted that Labour was still the party for the working classes.
But she warned of a growing disillusionment among voters because an increasing number of MPs had little experience of life outside the Westminster bubble and were perceived as being out of touch with the general public.
The former communities secretary said parliament contained too many career politicians who had moved from jobs as professional political advisers to gaining safe seats in the Commons and then becoming ministers.
“In 1979, 3% of all MPs came through that path, the ‘transition belt’ I called it, of being a special adviser, getting a safe seat ending up in the government,” she told the programme.
“At the last election in 2010 it was 24% and rising. There is a genuine issue here. People right across the spectrum do feel that politician who have never done a different job somehow cannot be in touch with their lives.
“We need to have a wide variety of people [in politics]. Nobody ever says Nigel Farage was a wealthy stockbroker.”
But her intervention risked reviving questions as to the credentials of her own party leader, who was a special adviser to Gordon Brown, when he was chancellor, and was selected as the candidate for the safe labour seat of Doncaster North, which he won in 2005, despite growing up and living in London.
Pressed whether her comment referred to Miliband, Blears said she was referring to “people in every political party … we need to have a variety of people”.
The MP for Salford and Eccles also rejected the claim made by New Statesman editor Jason Cowley in the Daily Mail on Saturday that Labour had become the “party of vested interests and snooty metropolitans”.
“I was brought up in a terraced house, I live in Salford and there are lots of people like me,” she said. “The guy whose house was photographed [in Thornberry’s tweet] - he was paying his mortgage, he was working hard supporting his family and the Labour party should absolutely be speaking for him and his family.
“He will want his children to get on and to do well. We need to make sure that the Labour party isn’t just about keeping you in your place, it’s giving aspirational families the chance to get on in life as well.”
Shadow cabinet minister Ivan Lewis also backed Miliband’s sacking of Thornberry and said Labour should support those who fly St George flags to show their patriotism.
Lewis, Labour’s Northern Ireland spokesman, said on Saturday that Miliband was “absolutely right to take that decision” to limit the political damage of Thornberry’s tweet.
Speaking at the Democratic Unionist party’s annual conference in Belfast on Saturday, Lewis, the MP for Bury South, said: “What Emily’s action did was to give a message which somehow is not consistent with what the Labour party feels. If people feel a strong sense of patriotism that is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Meanwhile, Reckless also said it would be “incredibly unlikely” for the Conservatives to win the next general election outright and David Cameron would need the support of Ukip MPs to deliver his pledged to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership.
“I haven’t thought that was a serious prospect since the Conservative party went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. How David Cameron and the Conservative-led government have governed over the last four and a half years has also tended, to put it mildly, to reduce the prospects of the Conservative party being successfully returned at the next election.”
This article was written by Henry McDonald in Belfast and Chris Johnston, for theguardian.com on Saturday 22nd November 2014 16.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010