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18 June 2001

Rise of the professional politician

Natalie Brierley finds few manual workers, but just as few managers, among the latest Labour intake

By Natalie Brierley

Who exactly were we voting for on 7 June? To most people, the names staring up from the ballot paper usually mean very little, and that is particularly so if they are new candidates, selected (as some were) only days before nominations closed for the general election. Labour used to mean candidates with a working-class background, often local, who favoured a strong state and social equality. But who represents Labour now?

In the 2001 election, 38 fresh Labour MPs were elected (not counting Shaun Woodward). They are overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged. Only four are women, and only one is under 30. At the age of 29, Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) is the youngest MP to join the new parliament, and also represents a very slightly improved ethnic minority presence in the Commons. Surprisingly, perhaps, six of the new intake are in their fifties.

Educational background proved more difficult to establish than you might expect. “School? What’s that got to do with the price of bread?” barked one agent. Of the 29 new MPs who did manage to answer the question, only two had not been to university. Of the other 27, seven had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Several had studied politics or related subjects; depressingly, for those hoping to see politicians grappling with ever more technical subjects (GM foods, global warming, and so on), only two had a science or engineering background.

A large majority had attended state comprehensive schools. The 16 per cent who have a private school education is lower than you would find in any Tory intake, but still about twice as high a proportion as you would find in the general population.

The new intake certainly supports the thesis that we have entered the age of the professional politician. Many had served as local councillors. About half had held some kind of political position, usually as a policy adviser, or had worked for a trade union. The most notable examples are David Miliband (South Shields), the head of Downing Street’s Policy Unit in Labour’s first term, and Jon Cruddas (Dagenham), deputy political secretary to the Prime Minister, specialising in labour market policy and employment rights.

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James Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) stands out as the only new MP with specific experience of manual work. Others, however, can claim something very close to a traditional Labour background: for example, the hero of Ynys Mon, Albert Owen, who unseated Plaid Cymru’s leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, with a majority of 800, worked as a merchant seafarer for 27 years before becoming the manager of a centre for the unemployed and the director of a homeless project. Robert Marris (Wolverhampton South West), a solicitor by profession (who founded and continues to run a free legal advice centre), nevertheless claims previous jobs as a bus and truck driver in Canada.

Teachers and academics were once, after the manual working class, just about the most prominent group in the Parliamentary Labour Party. But this profile accounts for only three among the new intake, while the media and PR claim four: Tom Harris (Glasgow Cathcart), a former reporter on the Paisley Daily Express; Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme), the City editor of the Observer; Sion Simon (Birmingham Erdington), Labour’s mouthpiece in the right-wing press; and Chris Bryant (Rhondda), the BBC’s head of European affairs. Bryant, as a published author and an openly gay ex-Anglican vicar, can claim to represent more than one minority, and was a somewhat surprising choice for a very traditional Welsh working-class constituency.

If we were worried that Labour is now being run by managers and business people, the new intake should put our minds at rest, at least a little. Just two claimed a managerial background. And only Jim Knight, who took South Dorset from the Conservatives, has anything resembling a stereotypical Tory background, with a private education, a Cambridge degree and a managerial position in publishing. A strategically good choice for a very marginal seat, perhaps?

The Welsh newcomers seem to stand out from the rest. They embody a greater sense of old Labour, with much stronger roots in their local communities. Homeless projects, workers’ education projects, involvement in strikes and rights campaigns, as well as very strong trade union affiliations, featured frequently in their profiles. If there is any real cause for concern over the future, it is the Labour agents. As I researched the candidates’ backgrounds, only the agent at Hywel Francis’s office in Aberavon, a seat held by Labour for the past 79 years, seemed to have a real interest in what he was talking about and a proper understanding of the candidate he was supporting. Sadly, after fighting nine election campaigns, he is due to retire soon.

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