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

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.