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RobWalkerWhere does a representative democracy end and an oligarchy begin? When do we arrive at a government by the few; an elite clique of people from the same background ruling according to their own whim? We haven’t quite arrived at that destination yet, but slowly and surely we’re getting there. 

A look at the educational backgrounds of our MPs makes grim reading for anyone who believes that our representatives should reflect the makeup of the nation they serve. According to Smith institute figures 33% were privately educated, contrasting with 7% of the population. A stunning 23% were Oxbridge educated, compared to just 1% of the public at large. The usual defence of this disparity is that the cream rises to the top and that the country needs the best brains. This, of course, assumes that the single measure of intelligence is academic. I disagree. In the Forbes list of the richest Britons, 4 of the top 10 billionaires left school at 15 or 16. I have undergraduate and postgraduate degrees but my late father who failed his 11 plus ran rings around me in terms of cutting deals with people and getting value for his money, a clever man despite being an academic failure. 

When it comes to employment history, our MP’s backgrounds represent a vanishingly small proportion of the workforce. 14% have a background in law, 10% in the media and 25% are part of the newest and most worrying group: the professional politician. This group made up of former political advisors, researchers, lobbyists, party officials and trade unionists constituted only 3.4% of the commons in 1979. In the same period, we have seen the proportion of former manual workers in parliament fall from 15.8% to 4%. Again the arguments would go that a body that makes laws needs lawyers and people with a background in politics understand how Westminster works. I would refute the first of these by saying that 90 lawyers in the house is overkill and that is what the 2000 odd lawyers employed by the government are for. As for the second point, Westminster isn’t working as far as the majority of people in our nation are concerned.

Indeed a 2014 yougov poll found that the majority of people surveyed wanted less lawyers and journalists in parliament and more teachers, factory workers and doctors. Contrary to how the media would like to paint the British public they aren’t stupid. They know who represents them, or rather who doesn’t represent them, and they don’t like what they see. 

Finally we come to a more abstract notion of affinity with the constituency and community that an MP represents. A very small proportion of sitting MPs had lived or worked in the seats that they now represent before they were elected.  At present it is increasingly the practice for the political parties to centrally make up a list of who they think is their political talent is and blood these people in contests that they can’t win until a safe seat becomes available. The candidate is then parachuted into a constituency they have absolutely no links or affinity with; a place whose problems they cannot possibly hope to comprehend in the time they spend there and then it’s off to Westminster to “represent” those people. David Cameron’s path is a case in point. From Berkshire, he stood for candidacy in Ashford and failed to be selected. He was then selected for Stafford and lost before failing to be selected for both Wealdon and Kensington. He finally landed the safe seat of Witney in Oxfordshire. This in itself was due to the sitting MP, Sean Woodward, crossing the floor to join Labour who then offered him a safe seat in St Helens, Merseyside. In fact, Labour are masters of parachuting in professional politicians. Who can forget Peter Mandelson a man whom had spent his life working in London becoming the unlikely champion of the people of Hartlepool, or Hilary Benn who after a couple of cracks at Ealing North had to settle for Leeds Central and there are many many more. 

TOpinionhe rise of the professional politician is a direct threat to our democracy. As we stand today, Labour MP’s are showering contempt on their own party members by attempting to depose the leader chosen by the members. The Conservatives are seen to serve the interests of their own party before all else. If this behaviour continues, voters will only become more disaffected opening the door to more extreme forms of politics both left and right. There is no easy solution to this problem, the last few weeks have proved if nothing else that the political elites are apt to cocoon themselves in an echo chamber. Given a chance they will continue to ensure that they are surrounded by more people like themselves.

I have put forward a petition proposing that any candidate standing for election to the commons must have lived in the constituency they are standing in for at least five years. 

This is of course nowhere near to being a complete solution but I believe it could achieve two aims. Firstly it would stop the practice of parachuting in candidates. Instead, the political parties would have to identify and promote political talent at a local level and would thus reduce the number of candidates exclusively employed within the Westminster bubble. Secondly, it would ensure that candidates at least had some understanding of the problems, views and wishes of the communities which they aim to serve. 

It would were it ever taken up at least put a spoke in the wheel that turns ever faster on its journey towards a parliament that one day could be made up almost exclusively of professional politicians. 

If you would like to sign the petition then please do so by clicking here.

4 Comments on "(Un)Representative Democracy"

  1. You make a very good case Rob. I think it is very important that an MP has an affinity and knowledge of the area he or she is representing. I moved recently but my former MP Labour’s Ivan Lewis grew up in his constituency of Bury South and it was obvious he had a passion for the area that was due to his roots. I sense that we are seeing more and more people especially researchers and advisers who have never worked outside the political scene and have no idea what it is like to be the ordinary man or woman in the street. I think it is important that an MP has good local knowledge and has an affinity with the area and is not parachuted in because it is a safe seat or they need to find a winnable seat for someone. Academic intelligence is as you say not the be all and end all and there are plenty of gifted people who have not got University degrees. What about the cost and process of becoming a candidate. This article is 3 years old but suggests for many the cost of becoming an MP is prohibitive. Research done in 2006 suggested the cost of being a candidate at around £41,000 which seems astronomical. I have signed the petition and will share on Twitter. This is the link to the article on the costly process of becoming an election candidate

  2. Thanks for your support Paul and the link to a very interesting article. Reading it seems to confirm some of the points made above. The parties have centralised the process of selection which can only reduce diversity as they will be looking for the same qualities in all candidates. The cost of time off work and travelling to selection centres and prospective seats which these candidates were incurring was precisely because they weren’t being selected by and put forward for their local constituency. It could mean the difference between leaving work half an hour early 8 or 9 times or spending day after day travelling half way across the country.

  3. Thanks for articulating a very important (but always overlooked) part of a functioning democracy. I was very disappointed at the last general election, when my MP John Denham (Labour) retired after eons in the job, to see my party had chosen a ’12 year old’ Oxbridge-grad journalist from Lewisham to stand for labour in my constituency.
    The pamphlets and campaigning in the election failed to avoid showing up the journalist-oxbridge-London-‘in-the-club’. So the effect was that labour chose a candidate with all these obvious flaws and then, in effect, highlighted them to the electorate (in my view, anyway) .
    ‘Obvs!’ Labour lost the seat the had held since before I was born. More painful was that the retiring MP was of the area, had proper work history outside politics and strong trad. Labour credentials AND was (& is) banging on about essentially this issue (Labour disconnect from England or the English) only to see Labour ignore him to the maximum extent possible and lose the seat.

  4. British elections are lacking some very basic – INFORMATION. Only coming to the election one can see all candudates standing for that area. And the only info available is a name and address. How exacly one can chose? Spend a day near by serfing the net for bios of all candidates? British public is so unspoiled by useful info, nobody even ask for it. Last 15 years I got a right to vote in Britain. Each time I try, I just get furious how stupidly it all arranged, how little info is given and how much MONEY mean in who process. Concervatives in our town send pretty school girls age 12-15 from door to door with leaflets. For real. That bad it is. FIX THAT BASIC FIRST.

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