The UK’s political system has some obvious democratic failings, perhaps the most prominent being the ‘first past the post’ voting system, which has enabled our current Government to rule as an ‘elective dictatorship’ on a minority of votes cast. However, there is less obvious inequality of representation created by the lack of working-class voices in Parliament. This lack of representation means that when for example, changes to benefits or employment law are discussed, there is little input from those with ‘lived experience’ of the potential detrimental impact of those changes.
As I have mentioned in earlier posts, it has been over fifty years since a train driver was elected to the House of Commons, but it was Angela Rayner, a former care worker, who finally inspired me to write this blog on the need for a broad cross-section of experience within Parliament. The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, not for the first time, created some controversy due to her remarks during a podcast concerning how we should deal with terrorists and how the police should behave with criminals. In her defence, Angela did point out prior to making these comments that they were not likely to be popular within her own Party, and they followed a discussion on how, while she was regarded as being to the ‘left’ of the Labour Party, she had a variety of views across the spectrum of politics. Wouldn’t we prefer our politicians to be candid, rather than just tell us what they think we may want to hear?
While predictable, it was a shame it was these comments (which took up a couple of minutes of a 60+ minute interview) that received all the publicity. The rest of the interview was in my view one of the most inspirational and frank political interviews I have ever heard – and one that should be compulsory listening for anyone, but particularly those from a working-class background, who aspire to enter politics.
The podcast is worth a blog all on its own. There was a refreshing absence of entitlement and a real sense of self-doubt, co-existing with assertive confidence when dealing with other people’s problems. As someone with ‘imposter syndrome’, although unlike Angela Rayner I really am very limited, I recognise how this self-doubt and confidence can exist together. She discusses being a ‘feral street kid’, out clubbing at 14 and pregnant at 16. Angela also discusses poverty, but in terms of poverty of love rather than a poverty of money, and about how she had to learn how to receive hugs. As someone who underwent childhood trauma, you can read about it here, I can relate in some ways to her experiences and how they can shape your future.
Politically, it was refreshing to hear a politician discuss the importance of needing to inspire people rather than berate them, to be bold rather than playing it safe, to speak from the heart rather than telling people what you think they may want to hear – and to have a Labour politician openly discuss the benefits of socialism. This short description really only scratches the surface, you can listen to the full podcast which I highly recommend here:
How many working-class MPs are there? Well, there isn’t a questionnaire handed around to MPs with a tick box for ‘working class’ so it is a little difficult to get an accurate figure. Further, this is before we get on to the question of what does ‘working class’ mean?
There are a number of different definitions of class based upon income, frequency of pay, assets, profession, education, lifestyle, housing and the presence of, or a lack of, a safety net in both monetary and social connection terms.
The poorest in society, who lack the social connections to provide support when things go wrong, or the financial security to get through a bad patch, are the most vulnerable to spending cuts across all sectors of government. I believe it is this section of society that needs to have better representation in Parliament.
So what is the current situation? The excellent House of Commons Library recently published a research briefing providing data on the social background of Members of Parliament between 1979-2019. There is a mine of information contained in the report. I have included the relevant highlights below:
- At the 2019 General Election 44% of Conservative MPs had attended fee paying schools, compared to 19% of Labour MPs and 38% of Liberal Democrat MPs.
- 29% of all MPs had attended fee paying schools, compared to fee paying schools educating 6.5% of the UK school children population.
- 22% of MPs elected at the 2019 General Election had attended either Oxford or Cambridge.
- At the 2015 General Election 31% of MPs were ‘Professionals (Barristers, Solicitors, Civil Service, Teachers etc.) 31% were from business. Just 3% were manual workers.
- None of the newly elected intake at the 2019 General Election were manual workers before being elected.
Of course, it would be inaccurate to say that only those MPs from manual occupations are working class. However, it is clear that there has been an increase in what could be termed as professional or ‘careerist’ politicians who have never undertaken work roles outside of politics.
The world of politics and politicians already seems remote from the everyday lives of ordinary working people. A lack of MPs from a working-class background risks alienating the very people who have the most to lose from political decisions made on their behalf, by people who do not understand the lives they live. As Ed Miliband, then leader of the opposition put so well in Prime Minister’s Questions in October 2013:
Many people face a choice this winter between heating and eating. These are the ordinary people of this country whom this Prime Minister will never meet and whose lives they will never understand.Ed Miliband to David Cameron PMQs 23rd October 2013
As Angela Rayner said in a ‘New Statesman’ interview in 2017 about the trend towards fewer MPs from working-class backgrounds: “We’ll become further and further removed from the people we are there to represent” adding “A Parliament full of solicitors and barristers will appear an exclusive club”. If we do not have MPs who have experienced the everyday strains and stresses of life on the breadline it is hardly surprising that there may be an absence of policies that support those that do.
So why is it so important to have the working class represented in our Parliament? Well a Parliament stacked with people from the business world are far more likely to have connections with, and be sympathetic to the needs of business over those of the people. Perhaps the most telling example of this is how politicians from all sides accepted the deregulation of building standards and fire safety as they were seen as “a burden to business”. You can read about how standards were relaxed and how lessons failed to be learned in the Fire Brigades Union’s excellent booklet ‘The Grenfell Tower fire: a crime caused by profit and deregulation’. A Parliament of MPs who has never experienced the relentless and grinding existence of poverty is likely to be a little more comfortable passing laws that cut benefits and remove the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society.
How do we fix the problem and enable a Parliament that is representative of every part of our society? I believe we need to make politics far more accessible, both in terms of clearly setting out how political decisions impact virtually every aspect of our lives and by removing the barriers faced by potential candidates who don’t have means to financially sustain themselves during an election campaign. We can achieve the former by reaching out into our communities with a mixture of education and grassroots campaigning. We can achieve the latter by providing direct financial support to candidates from working class backgrounds.
On a personal level, when standing as a Labour candidate in the 2017 and 2019 snap General Elections I was extremely fortunate to have terms and conditions of employment that permitted a mixture of paid and unpaid leave, and a financial situation that could take a financial loss, as well as a union that was generous in its financial support towards our campaign. The vast majority of candidates do not have any of the benefits and therefore there is no possibility of ever becoming a candidate. This built in bias against working-class candidates must change.
As Labour MP for Coventry North West Taiwo Owatemi says in the wide ranging ‘Hearts and Minds – Winning the working-class vote’ published in April 2021 “The Labour party should continue to recruit candidates from diverse vocational backgrounds who can best relate to the everyday issues their constituents face”. I would argue that the Labour party needs to do much more than we are currently doing and put in place a plan to ensure we have far greater working-class representation among our candidates. I believe that well supported CLPs, seen as community hubs that reach out to support the most vulnerable in our society, rather than be seen as talking shops, will encourage a far wider level of participation in politics from all walks of life. As more working-class people enter politics they will act as role models to encourage further involvement and increase trust in our politicians.
Increased working-class representation in Parliament will not fix all our problems in politics. We need a complete rebalance of power between the state, the police, the print media and the people, which I have covered in a previous blog here. We also need a fairer voting system and a more consensual approach to politics, to enable us to deal with pressing issues such as climate change that require a long term approach. However, it will be a good start and anything is possible if we put our minds to it.