Alan Milburn, the chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. Photo: Flickr
Show Hide image

Social immobility: the triumph of politicos over manual workers in parliament

The lack of social mobility is reflected in parliament, and Labour’s own claims to represent the working class have never been more dubious.

Today’s findings on the lack of social mobility in Britain come as no surprise. The Sutton Trust produces similarly damning reports every year. Conservatives including David Davis, Michael Gove and Lady Warsi have publicly complained about the sheer number of Old Etonians littering Downing Street.

When it comes to the dominance of the old school tie, politics is actually less bad than many other professions. 71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers and 44 per cent of the Sunday Times rich list went to private schools. For Parliamentarians, the figure is a comparatively puny 33 per cent. The direction of travel is positive, too: 30 years ago, half of MPs were independently educated. And Parliament is becoming more diverse in plenty of other ways, too. There have never been more female or ethnic minority MPs than there are today.

Yet these statistics shield a fundamental truth: that the public do not feel represented by their MPs. 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. Between 1945 and 1997, electoral turnout never fell below 71 per cent; in three elections since, it has averaged only 62 per cent. 58 per cent of the British electorate did not vote for the main two parties in 2010.

This disengagement from politics has coincided with the triumph of wonk world. “Parties can be criticised for focusing on ‘descriptive representation’ alone”, at the expense of professional and class diversity, the Institute for Government recently observed. This is why Michael Meacher, who has been a Labour MP since 1970, told me that “Parliament is more unrepresentative of society than at any time in my political career.”

He has a point. 90 per cent of MPs today are university graduates, compared with 20 per cent of 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.

Labour is never shy to point out the dominance of the privately educated in the top echelons of the Conservative Party (although 22 per cent of the shadow cabinet went to independent schools). Yet Labour’s own claims to represent the working class 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. In 2010, around two-fifths of newly elected Labour MPs came from a political background; that figure is very likely to exceed 50 per cent in 2015.

One of the stories of politics in the past 30 years has been the triumph of political insiders over manual workers. The general election of 1979 elected 98 manual workers and 21 people who had worked mainly in politics before becoming an MP. Today, there are 90 such politicos in Parliament, and only 25 manual workers. This is damaging to all parties, but especially Labour and its claims to represent the working-class. As Alan Milburn said today, "locking out a diversity of talents and experiences makes Britain's leading institutions less informed, less representative and, ultimately, less credible than they should be". Parliament is no exception.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.