A breed apart

The Commons has a disproportionate number of privately educated white men – not exactly representati

There are many strange things about sitting on the green benches of the House of Commons - from the men in tights wielding silver-buckled swords, to the fishing net of tiny microphones dangling above your head. However, the thing I never got used to was more prosaic, yet profound: the politicians don't look like the society that puts them there.

For a start, four out of every five MPs are men. Of the women, there are only two black women and not one Asian woman among them. As each party usually gets a number of MPs out of proportion to the votes they receive, our polity fails a basic test - it fails to be a representative democracy. The result, hugely compounded by the expenses scandal, is that voters feel MPs are a breed apart, with little sense of how modern Britain lives. For many of the MPs I worked with, this perception is unfair, but it contributes to the erosion of democratic legitimacy.

Cut from the same cloth

What are the prospects for change? We're likely to see more "newbies" than ever before at the next election, but research - in the Madano Partnership report The Class of 2010 - shows that prospective candidates in winnable seats are cut from much the same cloth as their predecessors.

Although only about 7 per cent of the population attends private school, around one-third of new MPs elected next year will have attended private school. Among Conservative MPs, the proportion will be closer to 50 per cent. While the Tories have made a little progress in selecting more women, they still make up just 44 of the 165 new Tory candidates with a realistic chance of winning. Moreover, they will mostly replace MPs from Labour (the party with the best record of electing women to parliament), so any increase is likely to be negligible. At this pace, we will wait several decades before we ­approach gender parity in the Commons.

Just as depressing is the fact that, in the coming election, whole areas of the country will be bypassed altogether. Millions will find that they are taken for granted or written off as living in an "unwinnable" area. The votes that "really matter" tend to be the more politically rootless swing voters in Middle England marginals, reducing parties' electoral incentive to give priority to disadvantaged groups. When people say that "there's no point voting", it may be less political indifference and more hard-headed realism.

The result is a generalised alienation ­towards mainstream democratic politics that extremist forces are quick to exploit. Opponents of changing the electoral system frequently point to the gains made by the far-right British National Party in Europe. The growth of the far right should be a matter of concern to everyone who wishes to live in a society governed by democratic values. Having received my fair share of death threats from racist extremists, I am aware how intimidating local far-right gains can be. However, if the BNP makes progress in conditions where people feel democracy is broken, is the solution to keep the same failing system in place? For voters in an area such as Stoke's Abbey Green ward, now exclusively represented by BNP councillors (despite a majority of voters consistently preferring other parties), people have no other local representative to undertake casework because of first-past-the-post. FPTP could yet play this out across a whole borough, handing exclusive control to a far-right party against the clear wishes of the majority.

Creating a monoculture

The present system works for nobody except the rearguard of mostly grey-suited men who are rewarded with a job for life. In some cases, these men work extraordinarily hard to represent the whole constituency - but sometimes they do virtually nothing at all. However, the point is that our electoral system of FPTP stifles pluralism and creates a monoculture.

Some argue that it is a price worth paying in return for strong government, but times have changed. We no longer live in an age of deference and top-down interaction. In the 21st century, strong government can only be built around active citizens who are valued partners, not ballot-box fodder. We cannot maintain an electoral mechanism that systematically marginalises the majority of voters.

It is imperative that, at the next election, people are given a real chance to fix our broken politics. The Tories have already pledged their support for the status quo. Labour needs to lead the way by giving the public a chance to vote for a properly representative democracy, in which parties are responsive to voters, whatever their gender or background. Just as important, we need the people inside the Commons to look like the people outside the Commons. It would be a strange sight indeed on those hallowed green benches.