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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”