The relationship between an individual’s social background and the way they vote has become much weaker in recent times with class no longer acting as a relatively accurate predictor of party preference. Voters are now far less likely to identify with one particular party, contrasting with voters in the 1960s when over half the British population identified ‘very strongly’ with one of the three main parties (by 2005 this figure was just 9%).
So why in 2012 is class back on the agenda?
A growing number of politicians and commentators are asking where the working class MPs have gone, questioning the narrowing in social background of our political representatives and raising concerns about a growing ‘political class’. This is more than just a reaction to Bullingdon Club alumni at the top. Beyond the stereotypes there are serious questions – how has the background of our representatives changed? Is social class the issue or is the real issue the rise of a ‘political class’ (those entering politics as former political staff, politicians and advisors)? And what difference does it make?
Last week panellists at the ERS seminar ‘Class Dismissed’ were asked to explore these questions. We were joined by Jack Dromey MP, Hazel Blears MP, Dr Rosie Campbell, Senior Lecturer in politics at Birkbeck University and David Skelton, Head of Research at Policy Exchange.
The headline statistics about the social backgrounds of our representatives will be familiar: over a third of MPs attended a fee paying school; over three quarters of MPs are university graduates and a quarter attended Oxford or Cambridge. David Skelton noted that in the 33 years between Harold Wilson walking into no.10 and John Major walking out, every Prime Minster was state school educated. Recent research by Democratic Audit reveals that the percentage of MPs educated at public school is at its lowest for the last fifty years within the Conservative party but has actually remained relatively stable in the Labour party for the last four decades. The situation is clearly not a simple as the headlines would suggest.
There is a lot we don’t know about role of class in politics today. Dr Campbell noted that most research has looked at those who have already made it into the House of Commons and that far less focus is placed on candidates and those who put themselves forward for selection. Is it possible that the pool of working class MPs is still there but that they are not making it onto the ballot papers? Clearly if the issue is to be tackled, a fuller understanding of the routes into politics is necessary.
The routes into to politics are of particular interest to Hazel Blears who has set up the Parliamentary Placement Scheme - a fully paid internship programme for candidates who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to undertake unpaid work in London. For Hazel the rise in the ‘political class’ is the biggest concern. There is a clear increase in MPs whose background is in politics whether as political staff and advisors or as political representatives. In 1979, 3% of MPs were former politicians and political organisers, now 14% of MPs are.
Whilst many voters would rather elect a former GP than a former political advisor these brokerage positions, Dr Campbell noted, can provide an important training ground for political life. This raises an important point: surely having experience in your field is very reasonable, or in fact desirable, for your CV? The panel felt however, that the limited access to these positions also serves to narrow the range of candidates. Unpaid internships clearly exclude many from experience in politics and likewise the costs of actually standing for a seat can be prohibitive to anyone not independently wealthy.
So if there is a narrowing of background, whether class or by occupation, what difference does it make? Our panel clearly felt the issue had wide ranging impacts. All our panellists felt a lack of diversity in Cabinet and Parliament is an issue when it comes to decision-making. Hazel Blears noted that the private sector has already woken up to this issue with companies recognising the need for diversity on their boards, and what, she asked “is the Cabinet but the Board of Great Britain plc?”
Jack Dromey referred to the long awaited legislation equalising rights for agency workers - would this have taken seven years to sort out if the Cabinet had better understood the issues? David Skelton went further saying a lack of working class voices damages parliament and politics – the legitimacy of the House of Commons is brought into question when it fails to be representative. This strikes at the heart of the issue. It was clearly felt that substantive representation alone is not enough; we no longer believe those who aren’t ‘like us’ can always act for us.
Beyond the headlines there is clearly a changed pattern to representation and a narrower base from which candidates are chosen across all political parties. This is a concern and one which many within the parties are anxious to change. Looking at how candidates are selected and how young people gain experience in politics is a good place to start and political parties and Parliament can play a key role in bringing this about. But there is much wider issue to be resolved in bringing politics closer to people, preventing it becoming a niche activity for ‘strange people in strange places’. Getting it right for the next generation of politicians is something that needs to start now.