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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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Long read: how political parties lost the working class

Parliament is slowly becoming more diverse. But on the eve of a new intake of MPs, can it represent the working class? 

On sale at a stall of the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last autumn – alongside “little Iron Lady” baby bibs and £20 framed portraits of the party’s new leader in a pearl necklace – was the well-known black and white portrait of John Major in his round hipster glasses on a pillow. Once you had dodged past the tweed-suited delegates queuing for the grouse-shooting simulator, you could see the words: “What does the Conservative Party offer a working-class kid from Brixton?”
 
Answer? "They made him Prime Minister."
 
This image of Major, the son of a music-hall entertainer and trapeze artist, appears to be evidence that the issue of class representation matters for the Conservatives – and it’s one the party has given greater consideration in recent years. But in a few days' time, the British public will elect the next crop of MPs, the majority of whom are likely to be Tories. Will a fresh parliament be more representative of the working class, or less? 

 John Major campaigning in 1974

At the 2015 election, the Conservative party appeared to make a conscious effort to bring in more candidates from working-class backgrounds. But during David Cameron’s administration, the left frequently pointed out – sometimes crudely – that Oxbridge-educated millionaires and former members of the tailcoat-clad aristocrats in the Bullingdon club dominated politics. The criticism was aided by a class photo of the club from 1988 featuring the former premier and his Etonian contemporary Boris Johnson.
 
It is an image the party under Theresa May has attempted to shed – albeit, with Johnson lingering around as foreign secretary. According to the educational charity the Sutton Trust, around 30 per cent of her new administration was privately educated making it the lowest proportion for a new Cabinet since the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1945. Her new joint chief-of-staff Nick Timothy has also written before of his working-class roots in Birmingham and his route into the party. And when asked about the issue of representation in Parliament, the Prime Minister’s office responded hastily saying she was determined to “build a country that works for everyone and that means bringing change to politics too”. In a statement May told The New Statesman: “I want people, whatever their background, to look at Parliament and know that it’s something they can be part of. There’s a simple practical reason: if you’ve got a good range of people in a group you get better decisions.
 
“So from bursaries for Conservative party candidates to Government action to encourage diversity in the civil service, the judiciary, and large companies, we’re delivering the great meritocracy that modern Britain can be.”
 
But despite efforts to diversify the party’s ranks, it remains one dominated by those born into privilege. Following the last general election, the same educational charity claimed nearly half of Conservative MPs – or 48 per cent - were privately educated. The figure is around 12 per cent for Labour and 7 per cent for the population as a whole. A significant proportion of MPs in the party have a background in law, business or previously worked as special advisers in Westminster.
 
In attempt to combat this, the image conscious party published a second edition of a pamphlet, entitled the Party of Opportunity, designed to showcase the working-class credentials of 29 of its MPs – or, less than 10 per cent of the party’s representatives at the time of publication. Appearing in the 64-page booklet Stephen Crabb, a former Cabinet minister, described how he worked at the corner shop on his street of council houses from the age of 13. “I would go running into town on Saturdays to try to catch the building society before it closed at lunchtime so I could bank my weekly earnings,” he wrote.
 
Jackie Doyle-Price, the Conservative MP for the ultra-marginal seat of Thurrock, who retained the seat by just 536 votes at the last election, added in the pamphlet that her mother was a part-time sales assistant at Woolworths and her father was a bricklayer. The booklet was compiled by Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West, who, himself grew up with little money in the east end of London in the post-war era. His father was an electrician and his mother a tea lady, dinner lady and before that a court dress maker. In his entry, he writes: “For the Conservative Party to win the next general election it is essential that we retain and increase working-class support throughout the length and breadth of country.”
 
Damian Green, the current work and pensions secretary who was born in a terraced house in Barry, South Wales, also appeared in the 2015 booklet. Like the majority of MPs he now describes himself as middle class. “It would be absurd to say I was anything other,” he wrote. But his section also carries a warning that is relevant to political parties across the spectrum.
 
“Almost everything in Britain in 2014 is better than it was when I was growing up,” he wrote. “One of the things which is worse is the ease of making the same journey I have. Is it still relatively easy for a child from a terraced house in South Wales to enjoy the benefits of one of the best universities in the world, and then a series of professional careers? I fear not.”
 
Green ends on the note that one of the biggest challenges facing his party is that make sure that the “routes of opportunity are open”.
 
***
 
The issue of class representation is not restricted to the Conservative party - and for Labour it has been outright damaging. According to recent research, a sharp decline in the number of working-class MPs within Labour’s ranks has caused a slump in support among voters with similar backgrounds.
 
Data available from the House of Commons library shows that around 37 per cent of MPs from the party came from a manual occupation background in 1979. Fewer than 7 per cent did in 2015.  Oliver Heath, an academic at Royal Holloway, University of London, claims this harmed the party’s image among its traditional voters.

Of course, structural changes in employment have had an effect. As James Bloodworth writes in his excellent book, The Myth of Meritocracy, “the shape of the job market (structural mobility) undoubtedly accounts for some of the change: fewer jobs today are officially classed as 'manual’. Yet the extent to which Parliament has become the talking shop of the middle class is evident in other ways, too." Bloodworth goes on to outline the astonishing number of MPs who were privately educated. 

The decline in MPs from working-class backgrounds has taken place against a backdrop of progress in other areas. The 2015-17 Parliament had 32 elected representatives who were lesbian, gay or bisexual - making it among the best for representation in the world. Around 6 per cent of MPs, according to the House of Commons Library, were from "non-white backgrounds" - low compared with 13 per cent of the UK population that are non-white, but an improvement on previous parliaments. 
 
Parliament also has its highest number of women MPs ever. Again, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done. A recent report from the women and equalities select committee claimed that the UK has dropped 48th place – from 25th in 1999 – in the global rankings of representation of women in a country’s lower or single representative chamber. The proportion of women in the 2015-2017 Parliament stood at just 30 per cent. Maria Miller, the former minister and chair of the committee, suggested political parties “must be held to account for reducing this democratic deficit”. 
 
Most damningly, Miller noted: "The number of men in the Commons today is the same as the total number of women ever elected to the House.”
 
The glaring lack of representation in politics, however, appears most evident when the socio-economic background of MPs is considered, whether applied to gender, ethnicity or sexuality. And voters notice. Writing in the second edition of More Sex, Lies, and the Ballot Box, a book for political wonks by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford, Heath adds: “The decline of working-class MPs within Labour’s ranks has substantially reduced the relative popularity of the party among working-class voters.
 
“Working-class people are much more likely than middle class people to vote Labour when the party contains a substantial number of working-class MPs,” he adds.
 
When we spoke early in 2016 at a café in North London, the academic told me of his concern that number of working-class MPs in the Labour party had dramatically fallen.
 
This decline, in his view, can be traced “quite clearly” to the 1980s during Neil Kinnock’s leadership of the party "when he tried to distance the party from working-class radicalism".  In order to modernise the Labour party, he argued, Kinnock changed the face of it: "[He presented] a more middle class, more sort of professional, social image of the party that then might attract some more middle-class voters. And that continued under Tony Blair.”

Diane Abbott, photographed alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Neil Kinnock, and Keith Vaz in 1987.

Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, agreed. “It was a concerted effort,” she said when I met her just before Christmas in Portcullis House. “I haven’t looked at the research but I lived through it and that’s what happened. So you have mining seats with people who were basically parachuted in from London – and so actually if you see the statistics the number of working-class MPs goes down and down.
 
“At the last election we had a disproportionate number of MPs who had been political advisers, had worked for lobby groups… very few come from industrial backgrounds.” She recalled that in the 1980s, working-class Labour MPs used to break into the party's ranks via the trade union movement. 

Abbott, the daughter of a welder and a nurse, and the first black woman to be elected to the Commons when she won Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 1987 general election, believes in the need for a Parliament that “looks like the country it seeks to represent”.

This would in turn make it easier to have frank conversations about controversial policies. “It’s far easier for a Member of Parliament that has been born and bred in their constituency and come up through whatever industry there was in the constituency to actually address their constituents and engage with their constituents," she said.  "Immigration is the obvious issue.
 
“It’s harder for MPs who might have been parachuted in to turn round and have a dialogue with their constituents."

A close ally of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Abbott praised him for building a “much more diverse” shadow Cabinet: “Three black women in the House of Commons on the shadow frontbench."

Kinnock, the moderniser in question, was the son of a coal miner and a district nurse. When I put to him the idea that he had deliberately brought in more middle-class candidates to the party's ranks, he was quick to dismiss it.  
 
“It’s complete bloody rubbish as far as I’m concerned,” he told me over the phone.
 
“All you’ve got to do is talk to the people who worked with me and Larry Whitty, who was the general secretary, and the relevant people in the party. The change came continually from the mid Sixties, and it related to greater educational opportunity more than any other factor. Constituencies selected graduates – no-one fixed that!"
 
He continued: “I think it would be excellent if more people from manual and non-graduate backgrounds were able to make it through the various selection systems. But, in the nature of the change in socioeconomic groupings and occupations, there are fewer aspirants who have got the self-confidence, if you like, and the difficult-to-define skills for making it through."

The organisations that did give working-class candidates confidence, the trade unions, no longer dominate British public life in the way they did in the immediate post-war period. 

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, told me: “A generation before the trade unions were a vehicle for many people in Labour, but also in the Liberals, to get into Parliament." Farron, raised by a single mother who worked at a checkout, believes like Abbott that politicians must look like the people they represent. 

"I remember thinking of my first week after being elected an MP in 2005, that I have never felt so common as when I entered the House of Commons," he said. "It felt a little like what I imagined a public school must be like."

Farron believes Labour MPs from the "special adviser generation" have "lost touch with working-class communities". 
 
Steve Rotherham, who spoke to me when he was a Labour MP, said he believed his party and Westminster as a whole needs a “broader representative group from the working class”. Rotherham, a former bricklayer, was elected for Liverpool Walton with a 58 per cent majority in 2010. On re-election, he increased it to 78 per cent, giving him the safest seat in the country. But after winning Liverpool’s mayoral contest in May, his days in Westminster are now over. Speaking over the phone, he described a need to “broaden out the mix in Parliament” from a system where "middle or upper middle class" graduates from elite universities are moved to the front benches. 

As a result, he said, voters only see "an identikit type of politician". He warned: “If we continue losing people who are from the areas, the backgrounds, from the geographical area… I can see people losing interesting in politics."
 
Rotherham believes it would be a “disaster” for his party if the decline in the number of working-class MPs continues. But, like Abbott, he praised Corbyn's record and said: "I think we will attract that broader range of candidates from working-class backgrounds so I don’t necessarily think it will continue”
 
Naz Shah, a Labour MP, started her working life at a launderette before moving on to packing crisps at Seabrooks.“The beauty about having people from real communities is that you can speak from experience,” she told me. 

Westminster, she believes "needs real voices". 
 
She said: “When you’re in debates, you think, 'God you guys are so out of touch with the reality of people’s dining rooms… and the impact of austerity'".
 
***
The conversation that first sparked this article took place in March 2015, when I spoke to the now independent, former Labour, MP Simon Danczuk.  Born in the back room of a terraced house in Burnley, Danczuk left school with no real qualifications. “The only qualification I got was a grade C in English Langauge," he recalled. "It was the teacher, Mrs Stevenson: she was a complete battleaxe actually. She was the only person who could discipline me into actually making a point and learning."

Danczuk warned Labour had been “hijacked” by a north London liberal elite and claimed voters viewed Ed Miliband, then leader, as more of a “toff” than Cameron. Two months later, Labour lost an election it was hoping might result in a hung Parliament. In seats such as Warwickshire North, Tory candidates won as Labour voters defected to Ukip.

When I spoke to Ukip’s current leader, Paul Nuttall, he was unsurprisingly keen to emphasise the decline in working-class MPs representing Labour. The 40-year-old has committed the party to becoming the “patriotic voice of the working-class”.  Shortly after his election, Labour veteran Frank Field said it was a “game changer” for Labour – and it’s clear Nuttall believes his background will play some role in his attempt to sweep up votes in northern towns.
 
“It’s perverse in some ways you have Labour MPs representing working-class constituencies,” he said over the phone from Brussels, where he has served as a member of the European Parliament representing the northwest since 2009. 
 
Nuttall claimed such MPs "have got absolutely nothing in common" with their constituents: “I mean look do they have anything in common with a working man’s club in Durham, or a working man’s club in Hull, or Leeds. I doubt it very much indeed."

The former history lecturer, who was educated at a comprehensive school in Bootle, Merseyside, claimed Labour was too "uncomfortable" to talk about law and order, immigration and prioritising British people in the job market: “They seem more at home talking about the hobby-horses of fair trade and Palestine as opposed to talking about the real issues that affect working-class communities”.

Still, the idea that Nuttall can sweep up working-class voters thanks to a regional accent alone, is too simplistic – and to believe otherwise, as many MPs told me is, in the politest terms, patronising. Nuttall’s inability, so far, to make a breakthrough with the electorate (he lost a crucial by-election earlier this year) and his party’s bleak prospects for the election are evidence for this.
 
“It’s not enough just to be northern and working-class – we’re not stupid,” said Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary. “We’ve been hoodwinked… it’s incredibly patronising, it’s not enough to just say we’ll have some northern trinket. You’ve got to have substance behind you.”

Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary
 
A rising Labour star, Rayner, 37, is one of a declining number of MPs from a working-class background. A former union representative, she became  MP for Ashton-Under-Lyne at the 2015 general election and Labour’s education chief after the failed coup against Corbyn in the summer of 2016. When I took the lift to her Westminster office with her in late December, after an emergency two-hour debate on the bombing of Aleppo, she was clearly irritated. She swore. A few moments later, as we walked down the corridor to her office, she chuckled: “Well, you wanted a working-class MP!”

Rayner, who, at sixteen picked up her GCSE results (she failed them all) six weeks’ pregnant, grew up on the Bridge Hall council estate in Stockport. “It was a difficult upbringing,” she said. Despite agreeing that being from a working-class background isn’t the be-all and end-all solution to the party’s problems, she does realise the importance of having a compelling backstory – one that resonates with the people politicians seek to represent. “I think people have felt politicians and politics in general have become more and more remote from their life," she said. "They see it as something abstract like superstars, like films. Somehow removed from what they do and their everday lives."
 
Working-class communities, she argued, “swallowed” the idea that they must be represented by someone who has been to university and has several degrees. “They’ll be smarter at putting our argument forward,” she added sarcastically. “There is a consensus that view that you must be the biggest, brightest university graduate to be your MP because they are likely to be next leader of the party, and the next Prime Minister.”

Speaking about her own experience in Westminster, Rayner admitted she’d faced snobbery from other MPs (I heard many familiar stories from other MPs). “I found that here it’s felt like an outsider, looking in. I’ve felt different,” she said. “I’ve been challenged for being different on my tone, my language. I get snobbery about the fact I don’t have any academic qualifications – so people think well, it’s nice to have me there as a little trinket but don’t give me any power because what would she know about what’s happening and the really complex issues the world is facing.”
  
It is clear Labour desperately needs more people like Rayner in its ranks – more MPs with the ability to understand and connect with the difficulties experienced by their constituents. Rayner used one example, a “profound” moment in her early days in Westminster. She was watching a debate in Westminster Hall about teenage pregnancy from the television in her office. “Literally, they were singing my life on that TV,” she said. “Honestly, I was sat there and I was really shouting because first all of there was an assumption all of these teenage pregnancies were unplanned and somehow this catastrophic mistake. Whereas I can tell you, if it wasn’t for me having Ryan at 16 I would of gone into drugs…crime.”
 
She started laughing at another anecdote. “I said we’ve got this real problem on the estate with horses, they are constantly causing havoc – tearing up the grass and things like that. And this Conservative MP says ‘Oh Angela, we have lamas on our estate.' Lamas!  No I was talking about the council estate and the travellers who have brought their horses… he was talking about his estate.  It was just one of those stark moments: I am from Venus, and you are definitely from Mars."
 
***
 
One of the greatest hurdles facing working-class candidates on both sides of the Commons is often overlooked. It is simply the fact simply it is incredibly expensive to stand for Parliament. While an MPs’ salary – three times the national average – would be a worthwhile prize if the candidate won, the sacrifice, for many, is just too great.
 
Luke Hall, one of the 2015 intake of Tory MPs, worked as a shelf stacker at Lidl for a decade and eventually became a store manager. He dismissed the idea that having more people from working-class backgrounds would help his party electorally. “I didn’t see it have any affect on the outcome of the general election, in people changing their voting intentions because of where the Prime Minister went to school,” he said to me in the members’ room of Portcullis House.
 
But then he raised a significant issue. “It cost me tens of thousands of pounds in lost earnings mainly to stand for a general election,” he said. “Just little things like it costs you a lot of money to drive around in petrol and everything else – that’s definitely a big barrier.”
 
According to research conducted by the website Conservative Home, the cost to enter Parliament, after accounting for travel and taking time away from work, is around £41,550. The research was based on existing candidates submitting their own financial costs of seeking to become a Tory MP.
 
One emailed the researchers the following: “My car was in the garage for servicing but my constituency chairman told me that the ward event was a ‘must-attend’. So my wife and I travelled from London to the constituency on a Friday night.  The train and taxi fares cost us £80.  Babysitting cost £20.  The tickets for the ward event cost £10 each.  I donated a £20 bottle of House of Commons whisky to the raffle.  I spent £25 on rounds of drinks and £5 on raffle tickets.  There were only 25 Tories at this ‘must-attend’ event.  Few of them ever did anything for the party.  There were no floating voters there.  We got into bed that night at 1am.  I was woken at 8am with a call from my Association Chairmen.  There had been complaints from two members that my wife hadn’t bought any raffle tickets.”

As Caroline Crampton wrote in these pages before the 2015 general election: “If you want to stand on the stage on election night wearing a rosette, you’ll have to buy it yourself."
 
In attempt to tackle this, Lord Feldman, an old school acquaintance of Cameron and the former Conservative party chairman, announced the party would spend £250,000 to helping working-class Tories stand at the next general election. Labour, too, has announced a similar initiative. Speaking to the House magazine earlier this year the party’s deputy leader Tom Watson said a £150,000 fund would be set up to help would-be MPs train and take time off from work while they campaign. “I’m not worried about the political hue of these guys, as long as they support Labour," he said. "It’s about widening the base of our representation."
 
He added: “There’s a feeling that politics has become too narrow. If you don’t have people from the traditional trades it’s easy to portray Parliament as being detached and I don’t want that to happen… The party of Keir Hardie, Ernie Bevan and Betty Boothroyd must be represented nationally and locally by men and women from working class backgrounds.”
 
These respective schemes are yet to be translated into a more diverse crop of MPs in Westminster, although 8 June 2017 may give some indication of how effective they could be. 
 
**
 
The number of MPs from working-class backgrounds in Parliament has undoubtedly come a long way since the election of Thomas Burt – a radical miner, who was the first working-class MP to enter the Commons for the Morpeth constituency 143 years ago.  According to his autobiography, published by his son after his death, he had a “wandering life” until the age of 15. His father moved to the tune of the labour market, working at some seven or eight colliers in Durham and Northumberland. He was a beneficiary of the 1867 Reform Act, which gave a proportion of working men the vote.
 
But in comparison to the current makeup of society, Parliament remains grossly unrepresentative when it comes to class composition – and this cuts across lines of gender, race and sexuality. There is a desperate need for more working-class people in the upper echelons of politics, to enthuse voters with voices than can resonate and put across core messages more effectively. Those who hold positions of power in politics have the responsibility to actively reach out to groups that are under-represented in the Commons. 
 
The issue is paramount in Labour, a party that appears to be finding it increasingly difficult to connect with the voters it has always sought to represent. Writing in The New Statesman shortly after the last general election, Jon Trickett, who served in Miliband’s top team, said his party had “suffered a cataclysmic decline among working-class voters”.
 
 “In 2005, I produced evidence that Labour had lost 4 million voters since the election in 1997. A substantial part of these missing millions were traditional working class voters. This pattern has continued over the last 10 years,” he added.
 
Labour has also been languishing in the polls since May’s rapid ascent to Downing Street in the summer of 2016. Only in recent weeks has the party managed to reduce the Conservative lead to below 10 points. While having more MPs from working-class backgrounds might not bring swathes of voters to the party, by putting such voices at forefront of its socialist agenda, Labour’s message will undoubtedly appear more authentic.
 
If, on the other hand, the trend towards fewer MPs from working class background continues, many in the party believe it will be detrimental. “We’ll become further and further removed from the people we are there to represent,” Rayner warned.  “We’ll become further and further irrelevant and people will get more and more angry at the price of democracy that they see doesn’t affect them.” A Parliament full of "solicitors, barristers" will appear "an exclusive club". 
 
Perhaps what is most striking about Rayner is that those in the political class will read her story and think to themselves “how unusual”. Her story is not unusual - it is Parliament. Whatever the result of the general election, all politicians must make a more conscious effort to remove barriers for those from working-class backgrounds seeking office, if Britain’s legislative body is to reflect the people it seeks to represent.
 
Ashley Cowburn is now a political correspondent at The Independent. This article was written as part of the Anthony Howard Award for young journalists.

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn

 

 

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