by Hazel Blears
The 2010 General Election was notable for ending – at least temporarily – the era of one-party dominant governments in the UK, and ushering in a coalition. Less notable, but much more worrying, was the continued demise of that all too rare representative: the working class MP.
In 1983, a staggering 51% of MPs had been educated at private school. This began to gradually fall, dropping to a low of 30% in 1997. However since then the figure has begun to rise again, and the 2010 election saw constituencies return an intake of MPs of which 35% have been privately educated. By comparison, only 7% of the school age population are in private schools; politicians are drawn from a narrow social class.
Of the 2010 intake 91% of MPs have attended university. So cliquey is politics that just under 30% of our MPs come from two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Just 13 schools produce a tenth of MPs. Politics is clearly becoming a graduate profession.
Whilst some MPs from working class backgrounds have made it to the top of politics – the likes of Alan Johnson and David Davis – the reality is that the social composition of our representatives is not representative of our country.
Good governance requires a range of views for effective policy making. If politicians are approaching issues from the same point of view and life experiences, they are likely to create group-think, and their narrow social experiences will be reflected in policy making. A case in point – would the current cabinet have been so quick to withdraw tax credits for working families if any of them had ever had to rely on them? Even the Labour party – the most diverse of all three main political parties – is hardly in a position to lecture about diversity.
Part of the reason for the scarcity of working class MPs is the shrinking size of the working class. Over recent decades manufacturing has fallen as a share of GDP, and traditional working class communities centred on industries such as mining have been significantly reduced. In 1986 only 28% of people self-assessed themselves as middle-class; by 2005 this has risen to 40%.
Over the same amount of time the percentage of people self-defining as working class fell. Of course, it has been pointed out that a number of people in the ABC1 social groups self-define as working class, when the reality is they can very much be considered to be middle class. A shrinking working class means that there is a smaller pool of talent from which representatives can be drawn.
Of course this isn’t the only problem. A number of people from working class backgrounds are put off politics by the complex and expensive selection procedures that lend themselves to party apparatchiks and political insiders. These processes focus on communication and management skills, skills that are traditionally honed in middle class professions. The focus on these creates an immediate barrier for some people from working class backgrounds, and that’s before cost is take into account.
Recent years have – certainly within the Labour party – seen the selection of parliamentary candidates take place much earlier in the electoral cycle. Whilst this is done to give candidates more time to try and win over voters, the associated cost makes it almost impossible for people from less well-off backgrounds to consider applying. As working class professions typically pay less this again freezes people out.
The Speakers’ Conference on Parliamentary Representation found that people feel most comfortable for someone who looks and sounds like them. In working class communities, the lack of working class candidates can explain why turnout is so low – it puts people off voting.
Turnout in the UK is worryingly low. Despite a spike in the 2010 general election – perhaps because of renewed interest due to the leaders’ debates – approximately 40% of people do not vote at general elections. Throw local election turnout into the mix and the problem it worse still.
It’s easy to say the low turnout is bad for politics – of course it is – but the reality is that unless people feel that their politicians can empathise with them, they will continue to stay at home on polling day.
The professionalistion of politics helps to develop disassociation from the political system, and the belief that “politics isn’t for me.” As politics is increasingly becoming the domain of graduates, a quasi-graduate scheme is developing in which someone starts off working as an intern – normally unpaid – in an MPs office before going on to become their researcher or special adviser. They are then parachuted into a safe seat, and before long are promoted to become a Minister before joining the ranks of the Cabinet.
Research by the Smith Institute shows that of the 2010 intake 24% came through this political adviser route, up from just 3% in 1979.
Whilst I have deep misgivings about this career path anyway, the use of unpaid internships as the first step onto this ladder freezes out the vast majority of people. That’s why I created the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements scheme to give people from working class backgrounds the chance to undertake paid internships in Parliament, but that alone is nowhere near enough.
The Speakers’ Conference report argues that the creation of a Democracy Diversity Fund to support candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds will help encourage them to put themselves forward ad candidates. It also rightly encourages the development of mentoring programmes for newly selected candidates so that they are helped by those schooled in the political process, and advocates that regional parties provide comprehensive training.
The reality is that these measures need both Government and political parties to act. However there is little appetite amongst the public for any state funding of politics – either to parties or to candidates from working class backgrounds – and parties remain focused on using their money on campaigns instead of candidates.
It is important to remember that representation isn’t confined to class. Political parties are hardly a beacon of equality when other factors such as gender and ethnicity are taken into account, and social progress remains slow in the corridors of power.
The country has made great steps in breaking down barriers across different walks of life, but politics remains the preserve of the elite. Politicians have a duty to act to open up doors to the next generation of working class leaders and until our political parties address their selection procedures our politics will be unable to develop as a true meritocracy.
Hazel Blears is MP for Salford and Eccles