Where have the working class MPs gone?

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

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11 Responses to “Where have the working class MPs gone?”

  1. Don Gately says:

    I agree with the issue but I’m not sure the trend can be easily reversed. There’s two issues for me

    Even at a council level discussions are increasingly technocratic as govt (as it reflects society) becomes more complex. You need a larger skill set to successfully engage in debate with some actual knowledge of how govt can work. It’s the same with every workplace – many industrial production jobs will require high levels of skills compared to 30 years ago. No wonder the job is increasingly undertaken by graduates – most jobs are

    but beyond the skills issue is that politics has become so career focussed (especially now that second jobs are frowned upon) that it’s harder to enter later on in life. Someone in their 40’s with a couple of decades of work experience and practical understanding just won’t find an entry point in todays political parties. That’s more of an issue than those middle class politicos interning early on in their career. Why should one have to want to be a politician at 20 in order to be an MP at 40 in the first place

    what we need to do is create an entry point for gifted amateurs – we need to look at local politics and how we can make the position of councillor more meaningful and attractive. We’ve not got a great record as a party sadly – we centralised too often over the last decade and the creation of a split between council cabinets and backbench members has left the position of a standard councillor even weaker than it was. I work across 10 local authorities in Hazel’s patch and can honestly say the quality of councillor in all parties has never been worse.

    the tories Localism policies have just been an attempt to shift the blame of cuts to councils however it’s something we need to look at – if we empower councils we can create a demand for better representatives and start to attract people who want to actually change society, rather than just rubber stamp the decisions of cabinet members who have limited discretion as they have to operate in national frameworks.

    And that’s how you’ll diversify politics – councillors (although too often white, male and middle aged – but that’s another issue) are often more like local voters than MPs

  2. Mike Homfray says:

    I think the other problem is the expectations of a parliamentary candidate and the need to make the necessary network contacts – which are a lot easier for London-based Oxbridge graduates

  3. swatantra says:

    Its right that a MPS hqave a certain amount of literacy and numeracy and and a couple of GCSEs and a degree referably, but its equally as important that they have some knowlege of life and everyday people and also experience of being in a demanding 9-5 job, preferably boring and repetitative.

  4. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    “Where are the Working Class MP’s?” They went away with the democracy.

  5. Harold Griffiths says:

    In 1936, my father, a former working miner ,was elected to the Commons for the first time at the age of 46. At the same time a former managing director of a steel company was elected as a Conservative member. In this age of the professional politician, what is the likelihood of anyone in any party with that sort of experience of life outside politics entering Parliament?

  6. Anon E Mouse says:

    Never thought I’d agree with Hazel Blears but I do….

  7. Stephen G. says:

    Shouldn’t we have a whip round to fund bursaries for working class hopefuls to attend the Progress finishing school for prospective candidates?

  8. swatantra says:

    Now that the BBC has moved up to Salford, the town which is really part of Manchester should see a renaisance. Lets hope more firms relocate up North and get the wheels of industry turning again.

  9. Solomon Hughes says:

    While Hazel Blears makes a very important case – and is I think very right on some of the specific problems (like the “Special Adviser” route into Parliament), she surely misses out the most important route for working people into Parliament: The Trade Unions. Labour’s historic links with the Trade Unions were the recruiting grounds for many of Labour’s working class MP’s – including Alan Johnson, John Prescott, Dennis Skinner, Bernie Grant . If Labour wants to recruit working class MP’s – blue collar and white collar – the party should look to their union roots: It’s odd that Hazel Blears, a member of the “Labour” party, founded and funded by the Trade Unions, should wonder about how to get more MP’s from what used to be called the “Labouring Classes” without looking to the unions. Labour should be trying to get more unions affiliated if it wants to broaden the social base of the MP’s .

  10. jonesxxx says:

    Good concise article.

    I think another problem is the “professionalisation” of politics.
    Our society loves to turn everything into a process. Take an organisation, pay a lot of consultants to analyse how it works. Write out all the processes. Then teach this as the way the company should be run.

    This is a way to get people who don’t know what they’re doing to run a organisation by rote.
    The people who study this stuff then think they understand the organisation. They don’t, they know how to “work” it.

    Seems to me that this has happened to politics. Yes, Blair knew how to pull the leavers of power but he seemed to just surge off in the same direction as Thatcher.

    Similarly the latest lot of Labour front benchers know how to get headlines and kick the Tories but I’m not sure they understand the gripes of Joe Public and I don’t think they have any ideas of their own.

    Am I allowed to link?
    I blogged a similar article years ago.

  11. Mike Brunt says:

    At 39 years old I went to live in the USA, Margaret Thatcher was still the Prime Minister in the UK and that is a story in its own right in my life, in this regard. I got my first management job in 1973 and had grown up in a family of grocers, funnily enough, with no college/university education and just one GCE. When I got that job, we could only work for 3 days a week, as could most of the UK because of strikes by the Miners Union and sympathetic support, it was these events and Margaret Thatcher’s handling of them which increased her power-base in my opinion. I am not anti-Union in any way, however drawing MP’s from there is no panacea. This is about the quality of people and not necessarily where they come from, in my opinion, although I am sure there is an omnipresence of “The Old Boys Club”. In addition, the Industrial Revolution is leaving us and is not coming back but that is a whole different topic. I am certainly a supporter of increased public funding in politics, having spent 22 years watching the complete debacle of US politics, where spending many millions is needed to even get anywhere near the public’s eyes and ears.

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