On sale at a stall of the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last autumn – alongside “little Iron Lady” baby bibs and £20 framed portraits of the party’s new leader in a pearl necklace – was the well-known black and white portrait of John Major in his round hipster glasses on a pillow. Once you had dodged past the tweed-suited delegates queuing for the grouse-shooting simulator, you could see the words: “What does the Conservative Party offer a working-class kid from Brixton?”
Answer? “They made him Prime Minister.”
This image of Major, the son of a music-hall entertainer and trapeze artist, appears to be evidence that the issue of class representation matters for the Conservatives – and it’s one the party has given greater consideration in recent years. But in a few days’ time, the British public will elect the next crop of MPs, the majority of whom are likely to be Tories. Will a fresh parliament be more representative of the working class, or less?
John Major campaigning in 1974
At the 2015 election, the Conservative party appeared to make a conscious effort to bring in more candidates from working-class backgrounds. But during David Cameron’s administration, the left frequently pointed out – sometimes crudely – that Oxbridge-educated millionaires and former members of the tailcoat-clad aristocrats in the Bullingdon club dominated politics. The criticism was aided by a class photo of the club from 1988 featuring the former premier and his Etonian contemporary Boris Johnson.
It is an image the party under Theresa May has attempted to shed – albeit, with Johnson lingering around as foreign secretary. According to the educational charity the Sutton Trust, around 30 per cent of her new administration was privately educated making it the lowest proportion for a new Cabinet since the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1945. Her new joint chief-of-staff Nick Timothy has also written before of his working-class roots in Birmingham and his route into the party. And when asked about the issue of representation in Parliament, the Prime Minister’s office responded hastily saying she was determined to “build a country that works for everyone and that means bringing change to politics too”. In a statement May told The New Statesman: “I want people, whatever their background, to look at Parliament and know that it’s something they can be part of. There’s a simple practical reason: if you’ve got a good range of people in a group you get better decisions.
“So from bursaries for Conservative party candidates to Government action to encourage diversity in the civil service, the judiciary, and large companies, we’re delivering the great meritocracy that modern Britain can be.”
But despite efforts to diversify the party’s ranks, it remains one dominated by those born into privilege. Following the last general election, the same educational charity claimed nearly half of Conservative MPs – or 48 per cent – were privately educated. The figure is around 12 per cent for Labour and 7 per cent for the population as a whole. A significant proportion of MPs in the party have a background in law, business or previously worked as special advisers in Westminster.
In attempt to combat this, the image conscious party published a second edition of a pamphlet, entitled the Party of Opportunity, designed to showcase the working-class credentials of 29 of its MPs – or, less than 10 per cent of the party’s representatives at the time of publication. Appearing in the 64-page booklet Stephen Crabb, a former Cabinet minister, described how he worked at the corner shop on his street of council houses from the age of 13. “I would go running into town on Saturdays to try to catch the building society before it closed at lunchtime so I could bank my weekly earnings,” he wrote.
Jackie Doyle-Price, the Conservative MP for the ultra-marginal seat of Thurrock, who retained the seat by just 536 votes at the last election, added in the pamphlet that her mother was a part-time sales assistant at Woolworths and her father was a bricklayer. The booklet was compiled by Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West, who, himself grew up with little money in the east end of London in the post-war era. His father was an electrician and his mother a tea lady, dinner lady and before that a court dress maker. In his entry, he writes: “For the Conservative Party to win the next general election it is essential that we retain and increase working-class support throughout the length and breadth of country.”
Damian Green, the current work and pensions secretary who was born in a terraced house in Barry, South Wales, also appeared in the 2015 booklet. Like the majority of MPs he now describes himself as middle class. “It would be absurd to say I was anything other,” he wrote. But his section also carries a warning that is relevant to political parties across the spectrum.
“Almost everything in Britain in 2014 is better than it was when I was growing up,” he wrote. “One of the things which is worse is the ease of making the same journey I have. Is it still relatively easy for a child from a terraced house in South Wales to enjoy the benefits of one of the best universities in the world, and then a series of professional careers? I fear not.”
Green ends on the note that one of the biggest challenges facing his party is that make sure that the “routes of opportunity are open”.
The issue of class representation is not restricted to the Conservative party – and for Labour it has been outright damaging. According to recent research, a sharp decline in the number of working-class MPs within Labour’s ranks has caused a slump in support among voters with similar backgrounds.
Data available from the House of Commons library shows that around 37 per cent of MPs from the party came from a manual occupation background in 1979. Fewer than 7 per cent did in 2015. Oliver Heath, an academic at Royal Holloway, University of London, claims this harmed the party’s image among its traditional voters.
Of course, structural changes in employment have had an effect. As James Bloodworth writes in his excellent book, The Myth of Meritocracy, “the shape of the job market (structural mobility) undoubtedly accounts for some of the change: fewer jobs today are officially classed as ‘manual’. Yet the extent to which Parliament has become the talking shop of the middle class is evident in other ways, too.” Bloodworth goes on to outline the astonishing number of MPs who were privately educated.
The decline in MPs from working-class backgrounds has taken place against a backdrop of progress in other areas. The 2015-17 Parliament had 32 elected representatives who were lesbian, gay or bisexual – making it among the best for representation in the world. Around 6 per cent of MPs, according to the House of Commons Library, were from “non-white backgrounds” – low compared with 13 per cent of the UK population that are non-white, but an improvement on previous parliaments.
Parliament also has its highest number of women MPs ever. Again, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done. A recent report from the women and equalities select committee claimed that the UK has dropped 48th place – from 25th in 1999 – in the global rankings of representation of women in a country’s lower or single representative chamber. The proportion of women in the 2015-2017 Parliament stood at just 30 per cent. Maria Miller, the former minister and chair of the committee, suggested political parties “must be held to account for reducing this democratic deficit”.
Most damningly, Miller noted: “The number of men in the Commons today is the same as the total number of women ever elected to the House.”
The glaring lack of representation in politics, however, appears most evident when the socio-economic background of MPs is considered, whether applied to gender, ethnicity or sexuality. And voters notice. Writing in the second edition of More Sex, Lies, and the Ballot Box, a book for political wonks by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford, Heath adds: “The decline of working-class MPs within Labour’s ranks has substantially reduced the relative popularity of the party among working-class voters.
“Working-class people are much more likely than middle class people to vote Labour when the party contains a substantial number of working-class MPs,” he adds.
When we spoke early in 2016 at a café in North London, the academic told me of his concern that number of working-class MPs in the Labour party had dramatically fallen.
This decline, in his view, can be traced “quite clearly” to the 1980s during Neil Kinnock’s leadership of the party “when he tried to distance the party from working-class radicalism”. In order to modernise the Labour party, he argued, Kinnock changed the face of it: “[He presented] a more middle class, more sort of professional, social image of the party that then might attract some more middle-class voters. And that continued under Tony Blair.”
Diane Abbott, photographed alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Neil Kinnock, and Keith Vaz in 1987.
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, agreed. “It was a concerted effort,” she said when I met her just before Christmas in Portcullis House. “I haven’t looked at the research but I lived through it and that’s what happened. So you have mining seats with people who were basically parachuted in from London – and so actually if you see the statistics the number of working-class MPs goes down and down.
“At the last election we had a disproportionate number of MPs who had been political advisers, had worked for lobby groups… very few come from industrial backgrounds.” She recalled that in the 1980s, working-class Labour MPs used to break into the party’s ranks via the trade union movement.
Abbott, the daughter of a welder and a nurse, and the first black woman to be elected to the Commons when she won Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 1987 general election, believes in the need for a Parliament that “looks like the country it seeks to represent”.
This would in turn make it easier to have frank conversations about controversial policies. “It’s far easier for a Member of Parliament that has been born and bred in their constituency and come up through whatever industry there was in the constituency to actually address their constituents and engage with their constituents,” she said. “Immigration is the obvious issue.
“It’s harder for MPs who might have been parachuted in to turn round and have a dialogue with their constituents.”
A close ally of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Abbott praised him for building a “much more diverse” shadow Cabinet: “Three black women in the House of Commons on the shadow frontbench.”
Kinnock, the moderniser in question, was the son of a coal miner and a district nurse. When I put to him the idea that he had deliberately brought in more middle-class candidates to the party’s ranks, he was quick to dismiss it.
“It’s complete bloody rubbish as far as I’m concerned,” he told me over the phone.
“All you’ve got to do is talk to the people who worked with me and Larry Whitty, who was the general secretary, and the relevant people in the party. The change came continually from the mid Sixties, and it related to greater educational opportunity more than any other factor. Constituencies selected graduates – no-one fixed that!”
He continued: “I think it would be excellent if more people from manual and non-graduate backgrounds were able to make it through the various selection systems. But, in the nature of the change in socioeconomic groupings and occupations, there are fewer aspirants who have got the self-confidence, if you like, and the difficult-to-define skills for making it through.”
The organisations that did give working-class candidates confidence, the trade unions, no longer dominate British public life in the way they did in the immediate post-war period.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, told me: “A generation before the trade unions were a vehicle for many people in Labour, but also in the Liberals, to get into Parliament.” Farron, raised by a single mother who worked at a checkout, believes like Abbott that politicians must look like the people they represent.
“I remember thinking of my first week after being elected an MP in 2005, that I have never felt so common as when I entered the House of Commons,” he said. “It felt a little like what I imagined a public school must be like.”
Farron believes Labour MPs from the “special adviser generation” have “lost touch with working-class communities”.
Steve Rotherham, who spoke to me when he was a Labour MP, said he believed his party and Westminster as a whole needs a “broader representative group from the working class”. Rotherham, a former bricklayer, was elected for Liverpool Walton with a 58 per cent majority in 2010. On re-election, he increased it to 78 per cent, giving him the safest seat in the country. But after winning Liverpool’s mayoral contest in May, his days in Westminster are now over. Speaking over the phone, he described a need to “broaden out the mix in Parliament” from a system where “middle or upper middle class” graduates from elite universities are moved to the front benches.
As a result, he said, voters only see “an identikit type of politician”. He warned: “If we continue losing people who are from the areas, the backgrounds, from the geographical area… I can see people losing interesting in politics.”
Rotherham believes it would be a “disaster” for his party if the decline in the number of working-class MPs continues. But, like Abbott, he praised Corbyn’s record and said: “I think we will attract that broader range of candidates from working-class backgrounds so I don’t necessarily think it will continue”
Naz Shah, a Labour MP, started her working life at a launderette before moving on to packing crisps at Seabrooks.“The beauty about having people from real communities is that you can speak from experience,” she told me.
Westminster, she believes “needs real voices”.
She said: “When you’re in debates, you think, ‘God you guys are so out of touch with the reality of people’s dining rooms… and the impact of austerity'”.
The conversation that first sparked this article took place in March 2015, when I spoke to the now independent, former Labour, MP Simon Danczuk. Born in the back room of a terraced house in Burnley, Danczuk left school with no real qualifications. “The only qualification I got was a grade C in English Langauge,” he recalled. “It was the teacher, Mrs Stevenson: she was a complete battleaxe actually. She was the only person who could discipline me into actually making a point and learning.”
Danczuk warned Labour had been “hijacked” by a north London liberal elite and claimed voters viewed Ed Miliband, then leader, as more of a “toff” than Cameron. Two months later, Labour lost an election it was hoping might result in a hung Parliament. In seats such as Warwickshire North, Tory candidates won as Labour voters defected to Ukip.
When I spoke to Ukip’s current leader, Paul Nuttall, he was unsurprisingly keen to emphasise the decline in working-class MPs representing Labour. The 40-year-old has committed the party to becoming the “patriotic voice of the working-class”. Shortly after his election, Labour veteran Frank Field said it was a “game changer” for Labour – and it’s clear Nuttall believes his background will play some role in his attempt to sweep up votes in northern towns.
“It’s perverse in some ways you have Labour MPs representing working-class constituencies,” he said over the phone from Brussels, where he has served as a member of the European Parliament representing the northwest since 2009.
Nuttall claimed such MPs “have got absolutely nothing in common” with their constituents: “I mean look do they have anything in common with a working man’s club in Durham, or a working man’s club in Hull, or Leeds. I doubt it very much indeed.”
The former history lecturer, who was educated at a comprehensive school in Bootle, Merseyside, claimed Labour was too “uncomfortable” to talk about law and order, immigration and prioritising British people in the job market: “They seem more at home talking about the hobby-horses of fair trade and Palestine as opposed to talking about the real issues that affect working-class communities”.
Still, the idea that Nuttall can sweep up working-class voters thanks to a regional accent alone, is too simplistic – and to believe otherwise, as many MPs told me is, in the politest terms, patronising. Nuttall’s inability, so far, to make a breakthrough with the electorate (he lost a crucial by-election earlier this year) and his party’s bleak prospects for the election are evidence for this.
“It’s not enough just to be northern and working-class – we’re not stupid,” said Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary. “We’ve been hoodwinked… it’s incredibly patronising, it’s not enough to just say we’ll have some northern trinket. You’ve got to have substance behind you.”
Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary
A rising Labour star, Rayner, 37, is one of a declining number of MPs from a working-class background. A former union representative, she became MP for Ashton-Under-Lyne at the 2015 general election and Labour’s education chief after the failed coup against Corbyn in the summer of 2016. When I took the lift to her Westminster office with her in late December, after an emergency two-hour debate on the bombing of Aleppo, she was clearly irritated. She swore. A few moments later, as we walked down the corridor to her office, she chuckled: “Well, you wanted a working-class MP!”
Rayner, who, at sixteen picked up her GCSE results (she failed them all) six weeks’ pregnant, grew up on the Bridge Hall council estate in Stockport. “It was a difficult upbringing,” she said. Despite agreeing that being from a working-class background isn’t the be-all and end-all solution to the party’s problems, she does realise the importance of having a compelling backstory – one that resonates with the people politicians seek to represent. “I think people have felt politicians and politics in general have become more and more remote from their life,” she said. “They see it as something abstract like superstars, like films. Somehow removed from what they do and their everday lives.”
Working-class communities, she argued, “swallowed” the idea that they must be represented by someone who has been to university and has several degrees. “They’ll be smarter at putting our argument forward,” she added sarcastically. “There is a consensus that view that you must be the biggest, brightest university graduate to be your MP because they are likely to be next leader of the party, and the next Prime Minister.”
Speaking about her own experience in Westminster, Rayner admitted she’d faced snobbery from other MPs (I heard many familiar stories from other MPs). “I found that here it’s felt like an outsider, looking in. I’ve felt different,” she said. “I’ve been challenged for being different on my tone, my language. I get snobbery about the fact I don’t have any academic qualifications – so people think well, it’s nice to have me there as a little trinket but don’t give me any power because what would she know about what’s happening and the really complex issues the world is facing.”
It is clear Labour desperately needs more people like Rayner in its ranks – more MPs with the ability to understand and connect with the difficulties experienced by their constituents. Rayner used one example, a “profound” moment in her early days in Westminster. She was watching a debate in Westminster Hall about teenage pregnancy from the television in her office. “Literally, they were singing my life on that TV,” she said. “Honestly, I was sat there and I was really shouting because first all of there was an assumption all of these teenage pregnancies were unplanned and somehow this catastrophic mistake. Whereas I can tell you, if it wasn’t for me having Ryan at 16 I would of gone into drugs…crime.”
She started laughing at another anecdote. “I said we’ve got this real problem on the estate with horses, they are constantly causing havoc – tearing up the grass and things like that. And this Conservative MP says ‘Oh Angela, we have lamas on our estate.’ Lamas! No I was talking about the council estate and the travellers who have brought their horses… he was talking about his estate. It was just one of those stark moments: I am from Venus, and you are definitely from Mars.”
One of the greatest hurdles facing working-class candidates on both sides of the Commons is often overlooked. It is simply the fact simply it is incredibly expensive to stand for Parliament. While an MPs’ salary – three times the national average – would be a worthwhile prize if the candidate won, the sacrifice, for many, is just too great.
Luke Hall, one of the 2015 intake of Tory MPs, worked as a shelf stacker at Lidl for a decade and eventually became a store manager. He dismissed the idea that having more people from working-class backgrounds would help his party electorally. “I didn’t see it have any affect on the outcome of the general election, in people changing their voting intentions because of where the Prime Minister went to school,” he said to me in the members’ room of Portcullis House.
But then he raised a significant issue. “It cost me tens of thousands of pounds in lost earnings mainly to stand for a general election,” he said. “Just little things like it costs you a lot of money to drive around in petrol and everything else – that’s definitely a big barrier.”
According to research conducted by the website Conservative Home, the cost to enter Parliament, after accounting for travel and taking time away from work, is around £41,550. The research was based on existing candidates submitting their own financial costs of seeking to become a Tory MP.
One emailed the researchers the following: “My car was in the garage for servicing but my constituency chairman told me that the ward event was a ‘must-attend’. So my wife and I travelled from London to the constituency on a Friday night. The train and taxi fares cost us £80. Babysitting cost £20. The tickets for the ward event cost £10 each. I donated a £20 bottle of House of Commons whisky to the raffle. I spent £25 on rounds of drinks and £5 on raffle tickets. There were only 25 Tories at this ‘must-attend’ event. Few of them ever did anything for the party. There were no floating voters there. We got into bed that night at 1am. I was woken at 8am with a call from my Association Chairmen. There had been complaints from two members that my wife hadn’t bought any raffle tickets.”
As Caroline Crampton wrote in these pages before the 2015 general election: “If you want to stand on the stage on election night wearing a rosette, you’ll have to buy it yourself.”
In attempt to tackle this, Lord Feldman, an old school acquaintance of Cameron and the former Conservative party chairman, announced the party would spend £250,000 to helping working-class Tories stand at the next general election. Labour, too, has announced a similar initiative. Speaking to the House magazine earlier this year the party’s deputy leader Tom Watson said a £150,000 fund would be set up to help would-be MPs train and take time off from work while they campaign. “I’m not worried about the political hue of these guys, as long as they support Labour,” he said. “It’s about widening the base of our representation.”
He added: “There’s a feeling that politics has become too narrow. If you don’t have people from the traditional trades it’s easy to portray Parliament as being detached and I don’t want that to happen… The party of Keir Hardie, Ernie Bevan and Betty Boothroyd must be represented nationally and locally by men and women from working class backgrounds.”
These respective schemes are yet to be translated into a more diverse crop of MPs in Westminster, although 8 June 2017 may give some indication of how effective they could be.
The number of MPs from working-class backgrounds in Parliament has undoubtedly come a long way since the election of Thomas Burt – a radical miner, who was the first working-class MP to enter the Commons for the Morpeth constituency 143 years ago. According to his autobiography, published by his son after his death, he had a “wandering life” until the age of 15. His father moved to the tune of the labour market, working at some seven or eight colliers in Durham and Northumberland. He was a beneficiary of the 1867 Reform Act, which gave a proportion of working men the vote.
But in comparison to the current makeup of society, Parliament remains grossly unrepresentative when it comes to class composition – and this cuts across lines of gender, race and sexuality. There is a desperate need for more working-class people in the upper echelons of politics, to enthuse voters with voices than can resonate and put across core messages more effectively. Those who hold positions of power in politics have the responsibility to actively reach out to groups that are under-represented in the Commons.
The issue is paramount in Labour, a party that appears to be finding it increasingly difficult to connect with the voters it has always sought to represent. Writing in The New Statesman shortly after the last general election, Jon Trickett, who served in Miliband’s top team, said his party had “suffered a cataclysmic decline among working-class voters”.
“In 2005, I produced evidence that Labour had lost 4 million voters since the election in 1997. A substantial part of these missing millions were traditional working class voters. This pattern has continued over the last 10 years,” he added.
Labour has also been languishing in the polls since May’s rapid ascent to Downing Street in the summer of 2016. Only in recent weeks has the party managed to reduce the Conservative lead to below 10 points. While having more MPs from working-class backgrounds might not bring swathes of voters to the party, by putting such voices at forefront of its socialist agenda, Labour’s message will undoubtedly appear more authentic.
If, on the other hand, the trend towards fewer MPs from working class background continues, many in the party believe it will be detrimental. “We’ll become further and further removed from the people we are there to represent,” Rayner warned. “We’ll become further and further irrelevant and people will get more and more angry at the price of democracy that they see doesn’t affect them.” A Parliament full of “solicitors, barristers” will appear “an exclusive club”.
Perhaps what is most striking about Rayner is that those in the political class will read her story and think to themselves “how unusual”. Her story is not unusual – it is Parliament. Whatever the result of the general election, all politicians must make a more conscious effort to remove barriers for those from working-class backgrounds seeking office, if Britain’s legislative body is to reflect the people it seeks to represent.
Ashley Cowburn is now a political correspondent at The Independent. This article was written as part of the Anthony Howard Award for young journalists.