‘The new British government and the House of Commons do not represent the country’, Le Monde, 1 October 2022

It’s hardly surprising that, in a country where both women and people from ethnic minorities were so underrepresented in politics for so long, a huge amount of attention is being paid to the fact that, for the first time ever, none of the top four posts in government have gone to white men.

But we shouldn’t allow our wholly understandable desire to celebrate that development to blind us to the fact that on another, surely equally important, measure of diversity, British politics has, if anything, been going backwards rather than forwards.

Gender and ethnicity matter – of course they do.  But so too does social class.  And on that score, neither the new Cabinet, nor the House of Commons as a whole, is anything like representative of the country it is responsible for governing.

Take the three Conservative politicians who are being feted as examples of diversity right now – James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  All went to fee-paying schools, the latter to Eton, the private school which charges full fees of over €50,000 per pupil per year and which also educated Truss’s preternaturally posh predecessors, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

And they are not alone.  More than two-thirds of Truss’s new Cabinet were privately-educated, compared to under ten per cent of the UK’s population as a whole.  And the same, incidentally, goes for nearly half of all Conservative MPs.

Interestingly, Truss herself, like both of the other women who have risen to become British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, was state-educated, even if, like them, she went onto study at the elite Oxford University.  But she has hardly struck a blow for increased socio-economic diversity by appointing a Cabinet which not only contains more privately-educated members than Cameron’s and Johnson’s but fully twice as many as Theresa May’s.

But this is not just about where politicians went to school, even if, in the UK at least, that does serve as a useful proxy for their class background.  Nor is it just about the current Cabinet or the Conservative Party.  In reality, they are all part of a wider trend toward the near-complete disappearance of working class people from representative politics at a national level.

For the first time ever, the parliament elected in 2019 contained not a single MP who was employed in a manual occupation immediately prior to entering the Commons.  In part this is a function of the fact that British politics is increasingly seen, whichever party people are elected for, as a profession only (or at least largely) for people with university degrees.

In 2019, for instance, nearly nine-out-of-ten UK MPs were graduates.  And since, in spite of the massive expansion of higher education we’ve witnessed over the last few decades, working class people are still significantly less likely to go on to higher education, that also means they’re less likely to end up in parliament.

The British Labour Party still has strong links to the trade union movement, which, by getting involved in the party’s selection processes and by financially sponsoring particular candidates, continues to have an influence on the make-up of parliament.  But Labour MPs with trade union backing no longer come straight from the factory floor as, traditionally, they used to; instead they’ve worked for unions in a research capacity or in their regional or national headquarters.

The Conservative Party, predictably enough, never had as many MPs from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds as its Labour rival.  But there were some – more often than not, self-made men who’d done well in business and then went into politics.  Now, however, even those who come into parliament that way are increasingly people from thoroughly middle class backgrounds who went to university before starting their careers in the City of London or as entrepreneurs.

It’s also the case that, as media has become more important to politics, and as candidates are now expected to engage far more with their constituencies even before they are elected, the costs of getting selected by a party in the first place have increased, making it even harder for people from working class backgrounds to make it into parliament.

But does this matter?  I would argue strongly that it does.  While what political scientists call ‘descriptive representation’ doesn’t automatically provide ‘substantive representation’, since politicians’ backgrounds don’t wholly dictate their policies, they are often correlated. There is also a strong correlation between class and turnout at elections – which, one can argue, is hardly surprising when ordinary working people can see hardly anyone who looks and sounds like them among the people they are urged to elect.

All this, remember, may even have helped deliver the vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.  At least in part, that result was the revenge of working class voters who didn’t normally vote on a political class from which, sadly, they’ve been disappearing for decades.

Originally published (in French) at https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2022/10/01/le-nouveau-gouvernement-britannique-et-la-chambre-des-communes-ne-sont-absolument-pas-representatifs-du-pays_6143943_3232.html


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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