It’s not more doctors and soldiers we need in Parliament, but more plumbers and electricians

by Sunder Katwala

Should Labour in Parliament look more like the country it seeks to represent? And how would it go about it? David Miliband is reported answering those questions at the Hay festival.

“Mr Miliband told the Hay festival: ‘If you look at the Parliamentary Tory party and the Lib Dems, they have got some strengths over us.

They have got more doctors in Parliament than we have.

They have more military officers. The Tories are trying to open up’.

Suggesting Labour should follow suit, he added: ‘We have to make sure we look like the country we represent, not just our supporters'”.

There are a whole range of practical and philosophical problems with seeking to make the PLP “look like the country we represent”, other than in the most broad brush and impressionistic terms. The goal of fair chances and no unfair barriers for candidates, whatever their background, is a better one. Over time, that would generate a group which was very broadly representative. But it is extremely difficult

It may well be impressive and popular for Labour to have more soldiers and doctors in Parliament, and therefore help improve the party’s public image. But it would not make the Labour benches more representative of the population, as the House of Commons breakdown of MPs’ backgrounds (PDF file) with the ONS labour force survey can demonstrate.

Neither of Miliband’s specific points would appear to be particularly true of the Liberal Democrats, as opposed to the Conservatives. They have no military officers (compared to two for Labour, up from one since 2010, and 15 Conservatives. The libDems’ one doctor, compared to Labour’s two and six for the Tories, does mean that 2% of the LibDem and Tory parliamentary groups were doctors, compared to 1% for Labour.

The two professions from which the Lib Dems draw a higher concentration of MPs than Labour are schoolteachers (11% of LibDems; 5% of Labour, 1% of Conservatives) and accountants (a background shared by 4% of both LibDem and Conservative MPs and only 1% of Labour). Both of the governing parties do have more MPs from business backgrounds – with 41% of Conservatives and 19% of LibDems, compared to 11% of Labour MPs.

Increasing the number of accountants would not, however, make Labour’s PLP “look more like the country it would seek to represent”: the UK’s 250,000 accountants make up just under 1% of the 29 million strong workforce, so are fairly represented. However, seeking to put more accountants into Parliament would, in fact, come considerably closer to achieving such a match between PLP and country than seeking to put more of the 29,000 military officers in this country (around 0.1%) into the PLP.

The 216,000 medical practioners are also already proportionately as common on the Labour benches as in society as a whole. The reason that they might not appear so perhaps mainly because former lawyers and solicitors make up 10% of the PLP, compared to 0.5% of the workforce, being “over-represented” along with former political advisers.

There is a good argument for Labour seeking to diversify the Parliamentary Labour party, and a good argument for a more open process to try to increase the range of people who believe that they have a shot.

But, if that were the goal, then the most obvious area would be to try to increase the number of potential MPs from working-class backgrounds. Doing that would make Labour both look more like the country it represents, and more like its supporters, also therefore avoiding the trade-off which Miliband suggests exists at present. (The Labour benches may represent a certain strand of the party’s most affluent professional middle-class support, but it would be strange to suggest they somehow reflect the party’s support more generally).

Just 22 Labour MPs (9%) have manual backgrounds, along with 2 Conservatives (1%) and 1 Liberal Democrat (2%), making up just 4% of the House of Commons compared to 16% in 1979.

In other respects, Labour has clearly made the most progress in seeking to make Parliament somewhat more representative than the governing parties.

Labour, with 31% of its MPs being women, is considerably closer to looking like Britain in this important area, with the Conservatives now moving up to almost one in six MPs being women (16%). The LibDems seem to have been stuck forever around one in ten (now 12% after 2010). As the Fabian Society has shown, the proportion is very likely to fall at the next election because five of the seven LibDem women hold the party’s most vulnerable seats.

The Conservatives have put a lot of recent effort into improving the ethnic and gender diversity of their Parliamentary group since 2001. They made significant progress on race – electing 9 new black and Asian MPs, taking their total from two to eleven. The Conservatives are now within sight of emulating Labour’s important, though almost entirely unheralded, achievement in breaking any aggregate “ethnic penalty” when selecting new candidates. The Lib Dems have struggled to break with the consistent pattern of electing an all white party at every general election, partly because they do not yet seem to have understood why their approach to the issue is failing.

Labour would look a little more like the country it seeks to represent if more of its MPs were state-educated. 14% of Labour MPs were privately educated, compared to around 7% of the general population. However, this is an area where Labour again looks much more like the country than the governing parties, with no fewer than 39% of LibDem MPs and 54% of Tory MPs having been privately educated (though this is the first time that the Tories are less than 60% privately educated).

If the aim were for future selections to make Labour look more like Britain, it would not be more doctors and army officers, but more plumbers, electricians and builders who might most help to do that.

Sunder Katwala his general secretary of the Fabian Society. He blogs his personal views at Next Left.


10 Responses to “It’s not more doctors and soldiers we need in Parliament, but more plumbers and electricians”

  1. Quite right. Although

    “There are a whole range of practical and philosophical problems with seeking to make the PLP “look like the country we represent”, other than in the most broad brush and impressionistic terms. The goal of fair chances and no unfair barriers for candidates, whatever their background, is a better one. Over time, that would generate a group which was very broadly representative.”

    Would seem to be contradicted by what happened during the period we were prevented from using all-women shortlists, and more men were selected to replace women than vice-versa, leading to a fall in the number of female Labour MPs.

    I guess it depends how you define an “unfair barrier” and what you regard as a “fair chance”.

  2. theProle says:

    So, given that more than 1 in 600 people are very thick, does that mean that the labour party should elect more very thick people, to become more representative…

    (or is Ed Balls deemed thick enough?)

  3. MattNW5 says:

    @theProle Brilliant. Was about to make the very same point myself only far less succinctly

  4. AmberStar says:

    So, given that more than 1 in 600 people are very thick, does that mean that the labour party should elect more very thick people, to become more representative…
    ———————————————–
    No, Labour don’t want to catch up with Tories & LibDems on that benchmark.
    😉

  5. Geoff H says:

    There’s a difference between saying that MPs should represent the electorate and that they should be representative of the electorate. The former is surely what’s actually important and we need to do a better job of understanding and identifying the skills needed to be good at it. I’m absolutely sure there are plumbers, electricians and builders out there who have what it takes in spadeloads. But let’s put them forward as candidates because they’d make great MPs, not out of misdirected tokenism.

  6. AmberStar says:

    As is usual for David Miliband, he has an almost sensible idea, then he expresses it badly. Rather than making the Labour benches more representative compared to the electorate, I assume he is asking: Should Labour try to recruit MPs with life experience of the Ministries that are run by Government?

    Doctors = Health
    Army Officers = Defence
    Teachers = Education
    etc.

    A straight-forward idea, botched in the delivery. That’s David Miliband’s MO in a nutshell & it’s why he’s not a suitable leader for the Labour Party.
    😎

  7. Forlornehope says:

    Trouble is that all the plumbers and electricians vote Tory!

  8. Merseymike says:

    Its also not the best time to look given that we lost so many seats last time and didn’t win the marginals

  9. eric joyce says:

    Steady on with the ‘working class backgrounds’. I’ve been an army officer and an MP and there’s never been a point when I’ve been earning more than my electrician brothers. And I know plenty of politically active former tradesmen with degrees. So there.

  10. Robert says:

    The parachute system used by New labour would stop that happening.

    But I come from an area in Wales which is coal mining and steel, 40 years ago I’d say in my area you would get a solicitor as your MP in fact we did, right now the next MP if the one we had stepped down would be an accountant.

    I do not know anyone in my Labour party who is in a position to be put forward as an MP from a working class back ground or even a Union back ground, the top table has three solicitors and two accountants all waiting with baited breath for our middle aged MP to says that’s it.

    Working class people tend to not bother being in the labour party in my area anymore, they have moved to the place across the road all you can drink for a tenner.

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