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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.

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

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.