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

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.