When Britain chooses which party will lead the next government, it will choose between a party dominated by privately educated MPs, and one ruled by political insiders. Such is the state of representative democracy today.
Ostensibly, parliament has never better resembled Britain. While a member of parliament remains less than half as likely to be a woman or from an ethnic minority than in Britain at large, there have never been more female or ethnic minority MPs.
The parliaments of the post-World War Two era were much maler and paler than today. MPs were also significantly more likely to have been privately educated. Yet, for all that, there was a range of class background and life experiences that seems absent today.
“Parliament is more unrepresentative of society than at any time in my political career,” Michael Meacher, who has been a Labour MP since 1970, asserts. “The whole parliamentary process has become much more elitist and become much more of a Westminster bubble.”
The dominance of those from independent schools within the Conservative party is well established. Naturally, Labour is never shy to point it out – but its own claims to represent the British population may have never been more dubious. Recent research in the Guardian found that over half of Labour candidates in marginal seats, or seats in which the sitting Labour MP is standing down, have previously worked in politics, as party workers, researchers, lobbyists or special advisers
Twenty-three years ago, Professor Anthony King warned about “The Rise of the career politician”. He argued that, “the demise of the non-career politician has led to a certain loss of experience, moderation, detachment, balance, ballast even, in the British political system”, and led to a rise in, “the tendency of politicians and civil servants to develop a private language, private quarrels, their own interests, priorities and preoccupations.”
King’s words resonate even more today. The background of parliamentarians has become more monolithic. 90 per cent of MPs today are university graduates, compared with 20 per cent across the adult population. Professional experience is also becoming less common: only 35 per cent of MPs have worked in the professions, compared to 45 per cent after the 1979 election.
But it is the contrasting fate of manual workers and political insiders that most starkly illustrates parliament’s direction of travel. After the 1979 election, there was a total of 98 manual workers and 21 people who worked primarily in politics in parliament; now there are 25 manual workers and 90 people who have worked primarily in politics before entering Westminster. Patrick McLoughlin is the sole former manual worker who represents the Conservatives in parliament.
So the cult of the professional politician is only intensifying, at least where Labour is concerned. The party has long trumpeted the need to “reconnect” with its working-class roots by selecting candidates who are more representative of Britain. The evidence is that they are failing.
In 2010, around two-fifths of newly elected Labour MPs came from a political background (Kavanagh and Cowley, The British General Election of 2010). The figure is very likely to exceed 50 per cent in 2015. Candidate selection has also drawn attention to the plethora of Labour political dynasties – the so-called Red Princes. No wonder there is such a yearning for the former postman Alan Johnson to return to the Labour front bench.
But it’s not just the sheer number of politicos in parliament that’s a problem. They also punch above their considerable weight. “Once they arrive they’re like fish in water so they tend to progress through to the higher ministerial ranks more quickly,” the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston observes. “The key decision makers are that group of people who’ve come through that purely political route.”
It is a myth that MPs are becoming younger: the average age of elected MPs has remained remarkably close to its current 50 since World War Two. But the route beloved of politicos – working as a special adviser or for a think tank after university before becoming an MP – is the surest way to rise to the top of political parties, as David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all illustrate.
“People who’ve come up that way naturally have those doors opened to them,” Wollaston says. “So much of politics is based on patronage.” The cult of youthful leaders also means there simply isn't time to enjoy a good professional career and then climb the ministerial ladder. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all had less parliamentary experience than anyone else elected leader of their parties since World War Two.
In the shires, the Conservative Party is rebelling against wonk world. Only 17 per cent of candidates in marginal or incumbent seats have a political background. But there is little evidence of this causing harm to those of a stereotypical Conservative background. While the percentage of privately educated MPs in the Tory party is at an all-time low, it is still 54 per cent, compared with 7 per cent of the population as a whole. And the link between businessmen and the party is actually becoming more pronounced: 40 per cent of current Tory MPs have a business background, with the figure slightly higher among the 2010 intake (Kavanagh and Cowley, The British General Election of 2010).
The quality of Parliament is undermined by this lack of diversity. The vast majority of MPs are bright and assiduous. But the intelligence of a group of people is partly determined by their range of experiences – what social scientists call “cognitive diversity”. Notoriously, all the glittering academic prizes in the world didn’t enable President Kennedy’s “Whiz Kids” to recognise the folly of the War in Vietnam.
The lack of variety in MPs’ backgrounds facilitates what Wollaston describes as, “a system capture and a kind of group think” in Westminster. It is a phenomenon that has a knock-on effect on the policies promoted by the leading parties.
“The parties are less ideological than at any time I’ve known,” Meacher asserts. “The differences between the Conservatives and Labour are vastly less than in the 1970.” Political scientists have calculated that the ideological difference between the Conservative and Labour election manifestoes since 1997 has been a third as large as between 1974 and 1992.
In electoral terms, New Labour’s shift to the right was rational and stunningly effective. But, simultaneously, it was deleterious for representative democracy. In a paper three years ago, the American academic Michael Laver argued that, “Vote-seeking parties may make voters miserable” by alienating voters who hold less centrist views.
The professionalisation of British politics, and the focus upon swing voters in marginal constituencies, has come at a very significant cost. “The vote-seeking strategies of British parties have contributed to dissatisfaction with democracy,” the academics Heinz Brandenburg and Robert Johns found in a follow-up to Laver’s work.
As the main political parties shift towards the centre, they leave more voters feeling ostracised and as if their views are not being represented. As Laver asserts, “voters as a whole may be better served by sets of parties who pay special attention to the views of their current supporters rather than tirelessly seeking new supporters.”
Ideological convergence between British parties has thus made them less representative of the divergence in views of the electorate. Meacher believes that the success of the Blairite group Progress in preparing members, who are very often from elite universities, to run for parliament has contributed to Labour accommodating a less diverse range of views than was once the case. “What they’re doing is training people of their own particular faction to get into parliament. And they do it very well.”
The cost of running for parliament is a desperately unglamorous subject. But is also fundamental to the crisis in representation in Westminster today. An Institute for Government report in 2011 argued that it is, “perhaps the most significant hurdle facing many candidates”.
As it has become more common for parliamentary candidates to be selected outside their local constituencies, those already working in politics have been the main beneficiaries. “Many people can’t afford to give up work or suspend work to move to a constituency and try and get selected,” the Labour MP Anne Begg says. “The people who are able to do that are those who are already working in the political sphere.”
The direct and indirect costs of running to be an MP amount to tens of thousands of pounds. And this cost especially hinders some of those who are most under-represented in parliament. The IfG argued that it disproportionately affects female and disabled candidates.
Parliament has been too slow to recognise the problem. “If the cost of being a candidate rises significantly then inevitably the pool of people who can afford that is diminished,” says Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science at Brunel University. “It risks making the job of an MP one that only the wealthy can afford.” The IfG recommends means-tested bursaries and a statutory right to take time off work for participation in an election campaign as ways of relieving the financial burden on candidates.
There are other steps that could help to make parliament more representative. But to political parties wishing to retain control over their MPs, they are deeply unappealing. A coalition plan to give voters the right to recall their MPs has been ditched. And tucked away on page 27 of the Coalition Agreement was the pledge to “fund 200 all-postal primaries over this parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years.”
Wollaston was one of two Conservative MPs elected in 2010 after previously winning an all-postal open primary to win the party nomination. “I would never have applied to the job if I hadn’t heard David Cameron saying he wanted people who hadn’t done politics before,” Wollaston says. “I never thought that anyone would want me to do the job.”
The – admittedly limited – evidence suggests that primaries are an effective way of opening up parliament to those from less overtly political backgrounds. Wollaston is widely recognised as one of the House’s most formidable MPs, admired for her independence and expertise on science – she is a former GP. Yet the same qualities render her unpopular with party whips who were not impressed with her opposition to aspects of Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms.
The coalition’s pledge on primaries has been scrapped; perhaps you can blame it on Wollaston. Ideas like job-sharing, which could open up parliament, are deemed far too radical for Westminster. But the coalition created the Access to Elected Office Fund to encourage those with disabilities to run for parliament. Begg, the first full-time wheelchair user to sit in the Commons since the 19th century, believes that parties have become more accommodating to those with disabilities, but that the Access to Elected Office Fund “needs a lot more publicity”.
Slowly, political parties have made significant progress in looking more like modern Britain. There are 143 female MPs today, compared to just 19 after 1979. There are 27 ethnic minority MPs, compared to 15 before the last general election.
But as female and ethnic minority faces have become more common, the socio-economic and professional backgrounds of MPs has become less diverse. As the Institute for Government observed, “parties can be criticised for focusing on ‘descriptive representation’ alone”, at the expense of professional and class diversity.
This goes a long way towards explaining the collapse in the popularity of the main political parties. From sharing 97 per cent of the vote in 1951 and 90 per cent in 1970, the Conservatives and Labour together only mustered 65 per cent of the vote in 2010. The combined party membership of the two main parties is 300,000, compared with three million in the 1950s. Electoral turnout has also declined. Between 1945 and 1997, it never fell below 71 per cent; in three elections since, it has averaged only 62 per cent. A significant majority of the British electorate – 58 per cent – did not vote for the main two parties in 2010.
Yet the sheer contempt in which mainstream politics is held offers the best hope of parliament weaning itself off its addiction to privately-educated and insider MPs. As voters become more inclined to plump for an option outside the mainstream, or stay at home altogether, parties will recognise the electoral gains in becoming more genuinely representative of Britain today. Whichever mainstream party commits to selecting candidates that better reflect society may enjoy a considerable first mover advantage.