Royally red: Straw, Blair, Kinnock, Prescott and Dromey Jr. Montage by Dan Murrell
Show Hide image

What Labour’s Red Princes tell us about Britain

The UK has the lowest level of social mobility in the developed world, and the nepotism at the heart of the Labour Party reflects this.

If Labour wants to convince disaffected voters that its politicians aren’t drawn from a narrow, self-serving Westminster elite, it has a few problems. The latest research found that 54 per cent of the party’s candidates selected in marginal or inherited seats (those with retiring MPs from the same party) for 2015 have already worked in politics or for think tanks. In comparison, 17 per cent of Conservative candidates are political insiders.

There’s another reason why Labour politicians might seem hard to tell apart. Let’s start with Aberavon, a constituency in south Wales that has voted Labour since the 1920s. There is little to tie Labour’s candidate to this safe seat. When not knocking on doors in Wales, he splits his time between Mayfair, where he works as a business adviser, and Denmark, where his wife, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is prime minister. There’s a lot tying Stephen Kinnock to Labour, however. His father is the former party leader Neil Kinnock and his mother is Glenys Kinnock, the erstwhile Labour MEP.

Or take Labour’s hopeful in Rossendale and Darwen, Will Straw. His father, Jack, a former home secretary, has held the neighbouring constituency of Blackburn since 1979. David Prescott, son of the former deputy prime minister John Prescott, has had less luck, having made three failed attempts at Labour candidacy. But in May, Joe Dromey, son of Jack Dromey MP and the deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, was elected a Labour councillor in New Cross, London. The decision by Euan Blair, Tony’s eldest, to quit his job at the investment bank Morgan Stanley in London in 2012 and move to a recruitment firm in Coventry suggests that he, too, might fancy a career in politics.

Labour’s so-called Red Princes have all worked in politics – in think tanks, for the European Parliament or US Congress, or as campaign strategists. Neil Kinnock is the son of a coal miner and Jack Straw grew up on an Essex council estate but their offspring enjoyed affluent upbringings and effortless transitions from Oxbridge into high-flying jobs. What does this tell us about the state of the Labour Party – or even British democracy?

The House of Commons is a close-knit, domestic place. One in 12 MPs is related to another current or former MP. As inexplicable as it may seem to the electorate, sometimes politicians fall in love with each other: 14 MPs are married to current or former MPs. This leaves 22 children of MPs, 11 grandchildren and a smattering of cousins, nephews, nieces, great-nephews and great-nieces. Three MPs are the third generation of parliamentarians in their direct family (Labour’s Hilary Benn and the Tories Nicholas Soames and Nick Hurd, son of the former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd).

Political families are curiously common in democracies across the world. In 2013, Justin Trudeau became the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. He is the son of Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister between 1968 and 1984 (with a break in 1979-80). Also in 2013 South Korea voted in its first female president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, the country’s authoritarian leader from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.

America’s founding fathers opposed inherited power but the son of John Adams, the second US president, went on to become the sixth president, and since then the Bush, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Clinton and Rockefeller clans have dominated modern state and federal politics.

Five years ago, the US-based economists Ernesto Dal Bó, Pedro Dal Bó and Jason Snyder published a study of American political dynasties in the Review of Economic Studies. They found that since 1966, roughly 7 per cent of US legislators have been related to other congressmen or senators (a smaller proportion than in the UK). Their analysis aimed to debunk a few convenient myths about political families.

First, are the children of politicians simply more likely to inherit political talent? Not if the Review of Economic Studies findings are anything to go by. When a congressman or congresswoman holds power for more than one term, this doubles the probability that one of their relatives will enter Congress. In the words of the authors: “Political power . . .
begets power.” Labour’s Red Princes can’t put their success down to superior social-democratic DNA.

Or perhaps it was natural for Straw, Prescott, Dromey and Kinnock to follow in their parents’ footsteps. The authors found that 10 per cent of lawyers in the US have fathers who do the same job, as do 14 per cent of carpenters and doctors (but just 1.5 per cent of economists). Yet, once you account for the relative size of these professions, politics emerges as by far the most dynastic. A GP’s child wanting to become a medic is striving to join a workforce of about 150,000 NHS doctors, while an MP’s son or daughter is hoping to take up one of just 650 seats in the Commons. That 22 have succeeded suggests that having a parent in politics is a big advantage.

So what do the Red Princes have over the rest of us? The Institute for Government estimates that it costs £41,000 over four years to become a parliamentary candidate. This is a lot but nothing compared to the $1.7m that American candidates need to raise for a seat in the House, or roughly $10m for one in the Senate. US candidates need to be good fundraisers; in the UK, it’s more important to ingratiate yourself with the party leadership.

So if you felt like being kind, you could say that Labour’s Red Princes have benefited from “high social capital”, but perhaps you would prefer the term “nepotism”. The children of MPs enter politics with an understanding of the Westminster system, as well as ready-made political connections and influential backers, which all help if you are looking for a parachute into a winnable seat.

In this way, at least, Labour reflects the society it aspires to represent: the UK has the lowest level of social mobility in the developed world. A 2011 survey by the recruitment agency Aldi found that over a third of Britons were not even interviewed for their job, having been recommended by a friend or relative. Politics, because it involves the trading of favours and the formation of alliances, lends itself quite naturally to nepotism – which might be why top-down attempts to tackle the problem have been so embarrassing. Last year, it emerged that the government’s anti-nepotism tsar, the Dragons’ Den entrepreneur James Caan, had given jobs to two of his own children.

For Labour, this is a problem. How does a party of political princelings and Westminster insiders convince anyone it can represent the working classes? Opening Labour up to less privileged candidates will require decisive reform.

Editor’s note, 16 December: David Prescott has been selected as Labour’s candidate for Gainsborough

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Getty
Show Hide image

Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain