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 TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.