The problem in Britain isn’t a ‘Westminster elite’, it’s poor social mobility all round

Politics is merely one of a number of professions that are increasingly dominated by the upper crust of British society.

Politics is merely one of a number of professions that are increasingly dominated by the upper crust of British society

On the back of Emily Thornberry’s ill-judged tweet last week which cost her her job, we’ve seen yet another round of navel-gazing about a supposedly cosseted ‘Westminster elite’.

The Rochester by-election ‘put the focus on Labour as the party of the metropolitan elite’, wrote Anne Perkins in the Guardian last Thursday. Meanwhile the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, wrote a piece in the Daily Mail over the weekend worrying about when Labour became ‘the party of vested interests and snooty metropolitans’.

Journalists now regularly talk in derogatory tones of a ‘political class’, the ‘metropolitan elite’ and the ‘London establishment’. The implication is that politics is the preserve of wealthy and detached liberals who spend a great deal of time pontificating in wine bars. They don’t, in short, understand the travails of the common man.

The Thornberry tweet appeared to sum up the disdain metropolitan types supposedly have for ordinary people who take pride in the flag and have to work in a ‘proper job’ (another accusation frequently levelled at politicians is that they’ve never had a proper job).

So does a gilded ‘political class’ really exist? And if so, where did it come from?

In answer to my first question, it certainly looks that way. The leaders of the three main parties all come from ultra-privileged – and highly unusual – backgrounds.

Prime minister David Cameron is a descendent of King William IV, who reigned in the early part of the 19th Century. After leaving Oxford, Cameron got his first job at the Conservative Research Department (CRD) because Lord Lexden, who at the time worked there as deputy director, received an anonymous telephone call from Buckingham Palace tipping CRD off about ‘an outstanding young man’.

Behind Cameron stands a cabinet which, at this time of writing, is made up of two-thirds millionaires. According to the Telegraph, the combined wealth of the cabinet in 2012 was nearly £70 million, with 18 out of 29 Ministers millionaires.

The opposition benches are just as peculiar. The Labour leader Ed Miliband became a Labour policy writer and speech writer just one year after leaving university, having attended Oxford and the London School of Economics. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was educated at Westminster school, one of the country’s most exclusive private schools, before going on to Cambridge and then to an internship at American left-wing magazine the Nation.

The backbenches too are stuffed with a grossly unrepresentative sample of people. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 around 40 per cent of Labour MPs had done some form of manual or clerical work before entering parliament. By 2010 that figure had plummeted to just 9 per cent.

The shape of the labour market undoubtedly accounts for some of this change – many poorly paying jobs are no longer officially classified as ‘manual’ – but the extent to which parliament has become the talking shop of the upper middle classes is evident in other ways too. An astonishing 91 per cent of the 2010 intake of MPs were university graduates and 33 per cent were privately-educated. This is a rise on previous elections and, in the case of the latter, compares to just 7 per cent of the school-age population as a whole.

The mistake is to view politics as in any way exceptional – in reality the shocking statistics I’ve just cited reflect a much broader anti-meritocratic trend.

So for example while just 7 per cent of Britons are privately educated, according to a government report published in August 2014 71 per cent of senior judges, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists and 44 per cent of people on the Sunday Times Rich List went to fee paying schools. If you were waiting for some kind of media outrage then you may have to wait a little longer: 26 per cent of BBC executives hail from the private school system too.

Even the grittier sections of the music industry, which at one time gave expression to working class authenticity, are increasingly dominated by the affluent. In 2011 music magazine The Word found that the majority of UK chart acts were either privately educated or from exclusive stage schools. This compared with 1990, when it found that nearly 80 per cent of artists in the Top 40 were educated in state schools.

As should be obvious then, talk of a detached ‘political class’ is myopic: politics is merely one of a number of professions that are increasingly dominated by the upper crust of British society. Rather than being the exception, politics is simply part of a wider trend: the privileges of the parents are becoming the privileges of the children with ever greater regularity.

Britain doesn’t have a ‘Westminster elite’ problem, it has a social mobility problem.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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17 Responses to “The problem in Britain isn’t a ‘Westminster elite’, it’s poor social mobility all round”

  1. Leanne Chatwin

    Couple that with a historical lack of trust for Politicians through numerous scandals which results in a vast political disconnect from the working class. There is a similar problem with the media, the percentage of journo’s from state schools is not representative of the wider population… all which leads to the horror front pages we see in press and the relentless broadcasting of poverty porn. Demonisation at its best.

  2. madasafish

    talk of a detached ‘political class’ is myopic

    And any discussion of politics without talking about the educational background of politicians at senior levels is surprising: Over half the Cabinet and nearly half the Shadow Cabinet went to Oxford or Cambridge…

    If that is not “detached”, then what is?

  3. Cole

    It’s way broader than the politicians: there’s a scandall-ridden nexus of media, business, police etc too. They’re not necessarily from the same backgrounds but behave like a corrupt elite – which is why people are pissed off. In former days people like Clem Attlee (Haileybury, Oxford) or Hugh Gaitskill (Winchester, Oxford) might have been posh, but generally knew how to behave themselves.

  4. AlanGiles

    Two words tell you all you need to know about Labour today:

    Tristram Hunt

    Parachuted into a safe seat courtesy of that oleaginous little snob Peter Mandelson (“horny handed sons of toil are not needed by New Labour” – Conference 1998).
    Labour today is now different to the Conservatives in that you have to be “one of us” – an Oxbridge go-getter

  5. Cole

    Actually, there were quite a lots of Oxbridge types in Labour governments ever since the 1920s, eg 3 generations of (Wedgwood) Benns.

  6. AlanGiles

    True, but because they were not heard and seen so much we don’t know how snooty they might have been in private life. People like Mandelson and Umunna (who complained about the lower orders interrupting his clubbing) make their snobbery obvious. People who think they are better than everyone else, even though there is evidence to the contrary with their “expenses” scandles

  7. Phil Hove

    This Labour site must at least stand up for us guys – copies of my mates letter here – to Mrs Thorn-in-the-backside:

    Dear Ms Thornberry,

    I read in The Sun about the way you sneered at Dan from Rochester on Twitter and it made me sick, it made me want to give you a piece of my mind too. Before I start my rant at you, I’ll admit I’ve used a ghost writer for this. Why? I didn’t want you sneering at my poor written English. Before you mock me for that admission, I’ll tell you why it’s poor.

    My Dad did a flit before I went to school. We lived in the East End of London, and mum struggled with no maintenance. She had no choice which school I went to, unlike you with your University Professor dad and Teacher mum. They could afford to send you to private school or live in the right area to get a good school. But I went to cr*p schools, the ones you Westminster politicians decided we had to have with no choice. And while I went to school, more and more immigrants came into our class: the teachers spent all their time with them, struggling with language and keeping up with the rest of the class. I lost interest, played up and left school with nothing, just about able to read The Sun and not a lot more.

    After a few years of wasting my life, including a bit of time inside (you do know what that means lady, don’t you?) for a bit of petty thieving, I got a sexy girlfriend. I sharpened up, got a job, working as a chippie, learning my trade the hard way: humping and dumping and making the tea, but getting a City and Guilds for Joinery in the end. I was really proud of that for the rubbish start I’d had in life, and dragging myself up by my bootstraps. Proud, like you would have been when you got your fancy degree in Law.

    I started working as a contractor on the sites: it was good money in those days, and I started thinking about marrying my gorgeous girlfriend, settling down and raising a family.

    When we started looking at houses, we couldn’t find a council house, sh*t, I mean social housing, so I thought about buying on a mortgage. But even then, in London, property prices were way too high, let alone the crazy prices now. So, we moved outside London, to Essex, near the sea and countryside, but close enough to London to still work on juicy contracts in the City. And, we managed to escape from being surrounded by the United Nations – the ghost writer tells me I mustn’t swear about some of the effing ‘orrible things those people did, ‘cos I might be called a racist. I’m no racist, but if they want to live in my country, I expect them to respect the law, to join in the community and not want it all their own way.

    So, we settled down, we had two great kids, the contracts kept coming, the rates stayed high, but slowly things started to get worse. When all those Poles and Hungarians were allowed in, on top of the Asians already taking some of the jobs, the hourly rates started dropping. I started working longer hours, the traffic got worse and worse, and my days got longer and longer – I was knackered by the time I got home and needed the whole weekend just to recover.

    Then the bankers b*ggered it all up in 2008 – contracts were few and far between, and work was stop-start. But, as a self-employed contractor, I couldn’t get unemployment pay, and things got tougher and tougher – thank God the mortgage rates came down, but prices kept going up. Pay rates kept going down, East Europeans happy to work for less than us Brits, and some were a safety liability with language issues.

    And it got worse, as work picked up, I noticed that immigrants were beginning to move into our town. The roads were now getting more and more clogged – I sit in traffic jams at 5:30 in the morning now going into London, and all it takes is an evening rush hour accident, and there’s effing grid lock. The government are clamping down on us contractors too, trying to get more and more tax from us, but they don’t care we can’t claim benefits and have to pay for our own training and sickness.

    Oh, and the kids are struggling at school, now the classes are so overcrowded with immigrants who need extra help – bigger classes, less teacher time for the English speaking kids. And my mum was very ill – the NHS treated her really badly, the doctors and nurses seemed more interested in paperwork rather than caring for patients, and the hospital treated her like she was sh*t. In fact, they killed her: she caught an infection, dying of it. I tried to complain, but the whole thing got whitewashed.

    And we’re really struggling paying the heating bills with all these windmills on rich people’s land we’re getting, and my mates at work say there will be power cuts this winter when they shut down the coal-fired power stations. Is the government stupid, or something?

    You know what, Ms Thornberry, this is all your fault, your party’s fault till 2010, and then Posh Dave and his lot since then pretending to be New Labour. You know what you’ve done, as a barrister you must be an intelligent person and I don’t need to spell it out, but you’ve let all these extra people in who drive down wages, make work harder to get, and fill up our schools, hospitals and roads. You’ve also messed up the economy, raised taxes and increased prices .

    Other than the family, the one bit of happiness in my life is when my team wins. If West Ham thrash Spurs, or England slaughters the Krauts, I’m a happy bunny, so that’s why the English flag also flies outside my house like it does Dan’s. AND, I’m proud to be English. Got that, lady?

    And there you are, living in your posh expensive houses, with overpaid jobs, snouts in the politics trough while the ordinary working man and his family suffers… and you sneer at us. Call yourself a LABOUR MP? Fighting for the rights of the working man? Understand our problems? Like hell you do!

    I hope I never hear about you again. I’ve never been interested in politics but after what you did to White Van Man Dan, I’m going to vote UKIP, not only to stick two fingers up to you, Mili-whatsit (another one in a classy expensive Islington house), Posh Dave and that Clegg bloke, but because now I’m listening to Nigel Farage, and he makes a lot of sense to me.

    Lady, don’t you ever dare take a picture of my van outside my house….

    Yours very sincerely,

    (Name withheld)

  8. robertcp

    Good point.

  9. robertcp

    It was impossible for my grandfather to have higher education when he was young. However, his nephew was a teacher and his three grandsons went to university. I am sure that this was typical of many families in the post-war era when there was considerable social mobility. This process does seem to have stalled but possibly this was inevitable. A more important issue might be that young people will find it increasingly difficult to maintain the living standards of their parents.

  10. Guest

    So you starts with the assumptions made in the Sun…

    The fact is, the schools would be better without the Grammar schools you evidently wants, and then you blames the Other for your lack of achievement.

    You is evidently and blatantly racist, of course, as you emphases your fear of seeing the Other and whines about paying tax, and that wages are too high. Hate Britain, check…as you vote, as ever, for the far right, because it makes “sense” to you that Hate is the way, as it always has been, nothing has changed as you live in one of the most solidly White British parts of the country for fear of said Other.

    Then you claims a right which is not yours, unsurprisingly.

    Thanks, Peter Hove. Magical friend, ha!

  11. Mike Stallard

    I am an old man now and I went to University (Birmingham) in the 1960s to learn about the New Education. Children were to go to school safe from the angry and often violent teacher. They were to be able to study instead of having their heads crammed with learning, learning, learning. Stuff like handwriting and spelling and learning by rote were to become a thing of the past. Every child was to be treated equally and not sorted out into the “brilliant” and the “thickos”. Competition was to go and be replaced by happiness. And – gasp shock horror! – women and girls were to be educated alongside boys! (Thank you pill and swinging 60s).

    It has all happened in the 50 years since.

    Now we get the downside: the state schools are producing people who find reading and writing hard, who are largely taught by women who have been to the schools where they learned that happiness is everything and where the standard has plummeted without competition.

    A very hard truth this for people like me as I watch people paying £37,000 a year for a decent old fashioned education along with Russians, Chinese and Arabs who alone can afford it. The state schools are improving fast. But the Independent Schools are improving faster. That is why the politicians of all parties are very careful to send their own children there.

  12. uglyfatbloke

    The thing that really distinguishes the political class is their bullet-proof position. There are still hundreds of MPs in the commons who got caught stealing on their expenses.

  13. Guest

    So you blame the progress we’ve had, and refuse to see the actual problem – governments won’t let educationalists near education, preferring constant top-down tinkering and massice over-testing.

    Nope, you need to fail as many kids as early as possible, to force even more of Gove’s “you only need memorisation” program, to utilise methods which only work for a minority of students…

    “Independent” school kids do better because they have better social networks. Not because they do better at degrees when people actually get to University – they don’t, in fact their graduation rates are worse than some of the best comprehensives.

  14. oatcakecorral

    A couple of years ago I went to Jack Ashley’s memorial service in Westminster. It was a very moving event and some emphasis was made on his working class poverty stricken upbringing in Widnes and the role of Ruskin College in getting him to become a BBC producer and then on to Parliament.. I turned up because I knew him when he was MP for S toke South.

    I’m a union rep who works in a supermarket and I struck up a conversation with a Labour MP who made the assumption that I was a full time union official/ politico.

    I’m not, but it did appear to me that the political elite that gathered in Church House in Westminster to honour Jack would do their best by ensuring that their off spring get the plum seats blocking some up and coming person from somewhere like Widnes achieving what Jack achieved

  15. Mike Stallard

    I never thought I would agree with you, Mr Guest who dare not speak its name. But I do!
    Question 2. Why do Independent Schools have better networks (in UK as well as Russia, Arabia and China)?

  16. Patrick Nelson

    Surely the issue is not whether they went through Oxbridge but whether they are from the 50 something percent who went to state school or from those who went to silver spoon schools?

  17. Patrick Nelson

    As far as I know only bonkers parties like UKIP support the reintroduction of selective Grammar schools, but there is a great irony that for many years many Labour politicians were Grammar school boys, but through the egalitarian impulse the Grammar school system was destroyed – leading to today’s situation where in place of the mid 20th century meritocracy we have a situation where class movement has been reduced by the removal of the Grammar school ladder and the failure of comprehensive schools to live up to brief. Add to this spiraling tuition fees and we see a situation where intelligent people from less wealthy backgrounds (a large proportion of the population) are being priced or scared out of higher education, whilst mediocre students from wealthier backgrounds fill the places that they would have occupied. The end result being a generation of professionals that is on average less intelligent than their professional antecedents and opportunities for social mobility through education greatly reduced.

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