Oxbridge wonks are people too, says Jessica Asato

When is a job not a proper job? And can you get by in politics without having done one?

Apparently not, if my previous experience of writing online is anything to go by. Whatever I wrote, be it an argument for universal childcare or a fairer funding system for older people’s care, the most frequent comment was that my opinion was irrelevant since I had never done a proper job.

On the face of it, the commenters had a point. I have never stacked shelves at Tescos, or dealt with angry customers in a call centre. I have never been a street cleaner or driven a bus. I cannot claim to have come from a family of miners or dockers. My career path, if it can be given a linear route at all, has been predominantly academic and political. Put the words Cambridge, think tank and Progress on any CV and it will scream privileged, middle-class Blairite. I am the walking, talking stereotype of a NuLab politician and I worry about it.

It has become a cliche to say that politicians are detached from the communities they represent. Party members such as Alan Giles argue that MPs arrive with little experience of real life, sit in Westminster’s ivory towers and spend their political careers supping bubbly and munching canapés. Nine out of ten MPs elected in 2010 went to university according to Sutton Trust research – the highest proportion of any parliament to date. 94% of the new intake of MPs went to university. All five of the Labour leadership candidates went to Oxbridge, as did the leaders of the three main parties. Politicians who have done proper jobs before entering politics, such as Alan Johnson, are dying out. Something must be going wrong when a political party founded to stand up for the workers has so few working class MPs representing it.

But that does not mean that all Labour politicians are out of touch. Indeed, many of them are more in tune with real life than most people give them credit for. There are few other jobs which bring you face to face with the flotsam and jetsam of people’s lives. As a newly-elected councillor, I have already come across three separate cases of mould growing next to children’s beds, repossessions, kids sleeping four to a bed, and hammer wielding neighbours, alongside the more mundane issues of parking, mobile phone mast applications and bin collections. A councillor friend of mine recently had to advise a woman who arrived at his surgery asking how she could escape her violent husband. He told me he had never felt responsibility weigh so heavily on his shoulders. Many of our activists have sat in a stranger’s armchair listening to their life stories and finding ways to solve their problems. University educated or not, pamphlet writer or not, campaigning for Labour leaves you with an understanding of the problems of modern life which many manage to avoid.

This is not to ignore the real issue that our selection processes favour the well-educated elite. But the answer is to search for new working class leaders, nurture them, give them patronage and a leg up in the party. All the leadership candidates mentioned a leadership academy of some sorts. It will be interesting to see if this ever comes to fruition. The same was promised in the 21st century party reform consultation published in 1999. Nothing happened. Paul Richards and others contributed to a Labour Academy for a while, but the party failed to keep it going and it withered. If we want more people in parliament who have been in proper jobs, the party has to apply positive selection criteria to them in the same way we have done for women and BAME groups.

Meanwhile, I hope wonks get a fairer hearing in the party. We may not have grown up on the local estate, but that does not mean we are incapable of representing the people who do.

Jessica Asato is an Islington councillor and social media consultant.

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13 Responses to “Oxbridge wonks are people too, says Jessica Asato”

  1. Emma Burnell says:

    I agree that wonks are people too, and that they have a right to a “fair hearing”.

    The problem I fear is that for the majority of the time I have been politically active, wonks are the only people who got any hearing at all. If, as the noises I am hearing suggest, the party is expanding the range of people it listens to, that is all for the good. But it may make those wonks who are used to an instant hearing and easy access understand the frustration of having to compete to be heard.

    Maybe the hearing is fair, but feels foul on past experience?

  2. Robin Hay says:

    Your point is well made – but I think that the criticism of unworldliness relates more to experience in creating wealth – understanding business – taking financial risks. The fact that you understand the problems that “ordinary people” face is valuable. But does it make you well suited to managing multi million budgets as a councillor?

  3. There are models other than the one that says you should leave school with a very high standard of education, go to university, obtain the highest standard in your chosen degree while there; before joining a research or policy unit as the novice wonk and hopefully graduate to the dizzy heights of prospective candidate for the PLP at some stage.

    The pity is that less and less of these other models are being used to choose candidates, it seems.

    And, you know, it’s actually quite insulting. The party is more or less saying that regardless of what life experience you have; what difficulties you have come through; how successful you have been at supporting and helping others; how intelligent and resourceful you have shown yourself to be; and all this in spite of not having the university standard education to back up your achievements – unless you have followed this university-type path, you have no or limited value to the party, or contribution to make to it, and can’t possibly be considered as one of its MPs.

    Or, rather, that is the impression the party has created for itself amongst many in society. I know because I have felt it too, at times. And it adds to the perception, rightly or wrongly, that politicians are increasingly remote from those that they represent and go through their lives living in a bubble removed from the rest of the inhabited world.

    And, believe me, I’m not applying for the role, thanks all the same, I’ll stay on the outside looking in if it’s all the same to you.

    But I’d really appreciate it if the party demonstrated diversity and fairness in regards to this issue by recruiting candidates from all walks of life, from the highest standards of academic achievement to those with none at all.

    As Alan Johnson put it yesterday, obtaining a ‘1’ in your economics degree is helpful and useful, but it’s not necessary. I suspect he will prove that to be the case in the months to come *crosses fingers*.

    So, no one is having a go at you, Jennifer, or your achievements, or your ambition, or your life experiences, or the fact that you can and would be able to relate to others in a variety of situations and successfully resolve issues that they had been having difficulties resolving for themselves.

    This is not about you. It’s just that a lot of us would like to see the most able, capable and talented people from a whole range of backgrounds working alongside you as equals while you’re doing it.

    Best of luck with the Friday slot, looking forward to your articles, this was a great start and an interesting topic. 🙂

  4. Jennifer? Mean’t Jessica, apologies, typed in haste! #fail

  5. James Mills says:

    Very interesting post, I believe it would match many of the sentiments behind the Labour Diversity Fund campaign.

    Please sign up to our pledge!


  6. Carina O'Reilly says:

    I think another problem with the situation is that we’re losing expertise. While I’m quite sure that being a councillor does indeed bring you into contact with other people’s lives, and the nature of representative democracy means that you’re never going to share all the experience of all the people you represent, a CV that has such limited range means that as a party, we lack people with real understanding of specialist areas. We should be looking for people who have worked in education, in housing, in transport; yes, even a few more lawyers. Experience purely of politics and lobbying doesn’t train you to do anything more than politicking and lobbying, which I think undermines the party rather than strengthening it. I would also like to see fewer young MPs and candidates, for similar reasons. I don’t see that a 25-year-old brings anything extra to parliament or to a campaign other than enthusiasm, where an older candidate may have a lifetime’s career and specialist knowledge that enhances and enriches the party and political debate – this is what makes the House of Lords such a valuable institution.

    I’m in my early thirties, incidentally, went to Oxbridge, and know several excellent young candidates; I don’t doubt that the author is an excellent and articulate representative, I simply think that as a party we should aim for a much wider and more diverse range. A new intake consisting wholly of people with lobbying and politics background is a poor outcome, leaving us with no depth of knowledge or experience. Newspapers throw in the bin CVs of people with media studies degrees; they want people who are interested in other subjects, not just the media, and able to express themselves. We should be doing the same.

  7. Aysha Qureshi says:

    The problem is not that ‘Oxbridge wonks’ are necessarily out of touch. More that they will inevitably have similar ways of addressing issues because of such a common background. The Oxbridge/think tank/SPAD route means a lot of the same people know each other throughout their 20s and 30s and then later in life end up running the country – they’re clearly academic, intelligent people who most of the time want to make a difference but to only have their viewpoint represented at the top is dangerous.

    The point about business and creating wealth is an important one. If someone’s run a business or worked for many years in the public/private sector for example they will have experience to bring to the table that simply reading a paper cannot provide. The current composition of both the cabinet and shadow cabinet would not suggest that Oxbridge wonks don’t get a fair hearing – quite the opposite in fact.

    One of the biggest issues the party (and the other parties too) needs to address is the huge imbalance in the number of ‘policy wonks’ in the top jobs. Who will be the next Alan Johnson? Will there ever be one? If the answer is no then that is saddening. That’s not to say experts in policy with a background in academia do not have a role to play. Of course they do. But it should be in conjunction with leaders from a background in business, in the charity sector, in the public sector, the scientific and artistic community etc.

    This problem is compounded by the phenomenon that MPs seem to be getting ever younger. Is it really desirable that the leaders of all 3 major parties are young men in their 40s who’ve had little, if any, experience outside the political world? Would we not benefit from more people entering politics later in life as is the case in the US for example? I think there’s a strong argument to be made for politics not simple to be a career you choose straight out of university but something your life experience shapes you to be fit for.

  8. Gary says:

    The fact remains that the Oxbridge-educated, “policy wonks” remain vastly over-represented not just in Labour Party politics, but in society in general. I wouldn’t let some tabloid moaning worrying you – chances are you are going to be successful in politics, the media, the law etc. or whatever you decide to turn your hand to.

  9. Rachel says:

    Paradoxically, despite all my qualifications, I think that the things that most qualify me for politics are:

    * experiencing unemployment
    * learning to navigate the benefits system
    * working as an agency worker
    * working for the minimum wage
    * being ill and navigating the NHS

    This means that when people tell me they’re struggling with these things, I can look them in the eye and say quite honestly “I understand”.

  10. james says:

    Jessica, you are totally correct Oxbridge wonks are workers – paid employment is a proper job. I wonder how much the problem has been excacerbated by the Clause Four re-write which wiped out mention of us being a party of labour “by hand or by brain”?

  11. Ryan Thomas says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I agree that many people can be too dismissive of “wonks” (a term I hate) and I dislike this “real job” distinction that has been artificially created. I come from a very poor part of Britain, my father was a carpenter and my mother a nurse and they encouraged me to further my education so I did not have to labour physically as they had done all their lives (“do something using your brain, not your hands,” my father used to tell me). I now work in higher education. While I have a deep respect for physical labour, I would be repulsed if somebody told me I had not done a “real job.”

    On the other hand, it is interesting that you cite the Alan Giles article from LabourList (which I also enjoyed reading, and which I also agreed with). His argument is one that Hazel Blears, of all people, made a while back too. We do desperately need a more diverse mix of MPs so we better reflect the population and do not look like our MPs are created on a conveyor belt.

    I suspect the truth lies somewhere inbetween, insomuch as the problem is not with “wonks” per se, but in the proportion of the PLP that fall into this category. I think the goal should always be to have a political class that is truly representative of the people – this is commonly understood to be in terms of gender, race, and so on (all of which is important), but it must be representative of educational/employment background. To that end, we should of course have “wonks” in the party at the highest levels, but we should also strive for balance in terms of public and private sector workers, people who have worked in the NHS, in law, in education (be it secondary, higher, or other), in manual industry, and yes, those who have been unemployed. If we claim to be the party of the majority then we need to look like the people we represent.

    This is, of course, a normative standard – how to accomplish this is the difficult part. I would humbly suggest that removing some of the strictures that New Labour instituted that harmed internal party democracy might be a start.

  12. jk says:

    You condemn yourself with the descriptions of examples of ‘real life’ you’ve encountered as a councillor. What many past and present policy wonks (including many of the front bench) don’t get is it is just the misery of poverty, poor life chances, rubbish housing, crap health and the rest destroys people from the inside. It is the crushing effect of poor expectations that is internalised – being told that you are worthless, becomes accepted as fact. Compare to the oxbridge and darlings – full of confidence, rarely experiencing life changing failure and rejection – and with sharp pushy elbows and witty put downs of those who are not as clever and fortunate as you. Confidence that will take them forth into any world they wish – including discovering how miserable poor people’s lives can be and using it to garner political credibility from such observations. And there you have it – why many traditional Labour party members and supporters shake our collective heads and weep at what the Labour Party has become.

  13. MammaAli says:


    Just came across this. I would like to agree withthe writer and argue for more diversity in the party. I want to get into politics because I am from that dying breed! A daughter of a Merchant Sailor, first to go to university, lived on a council eastate, working in Legal Aid and poverty campaiging. A single mother of two, who has had to find her way through the housing problems, education, u/e and poverty!

    I could go on! but I have found it hard to enter the world of politics, as the middle class Oxbridge types seem to block every route!! There is no real hand held out to people like me to came and sit at the table!!

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