When politics is so unrepresentative is it any wonder we switch off?
In a capitalist economy wealth tends to grow faster than economic output, as French economist Thomas Piketty noted in his best-selling book Capital in the 21st Century. Or put another way, the more money you have the easier it is to make lots more of it. During periods of slow economic growth this leaves those unfortunate enough to be asset poor clinging to the coat tails of the capital-rich.
But it isn’t only wealth that concentrates; opportunity does too, as is evidenced by the gilded nature of the upper echelons of British society. This occurs for the simple reason that the privileges of the parents tend to become the privileges of the children. To quote Piketty’s predecessor Karl Marx, “Men make their own circumstances… but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in British politics. According to new research by the Sutton Trust, almost a third (31 per cent) of parliamentary candidates in winnable seats attended fee-paying schools. Meanwhile 55 per cent of candidates went to elite Russell Group universities, with 19 per cent attending either Oxford or Cambridge.
Depressingly, Labour is the only party where the proportion of former private school pupils has grown. The research shows that 19 per cent of candidates who stand a chance of winning a seat in May were privately educated, compared with 10 per cent of Labour MPs.
However despite the fanfare today’s research will undoubtedly attract, it would be wrong to characterise poor social mobility as a problem confined to politics. In reality politics is just one of a number of professions which are increasingly dominated by the upper crust of British society.
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 the thundering broadsides from the media against such a state of affairs you may have to wait a little longer: 26 per cent of BBC executives hail from the private school system too.
In other words, politics is like the canary in the mine: it’s the danger sign for a much larger problem.
So does it even matter?
Well yes it does – though plenty of people (usually themselves beneficiaries of the status quo) will try to tell you it doesn’t. It matters for one thing because the public are viscerally turning away from politics and in doing so they will frequently say that all politicians look and sound ‘the same’. It isn’t necessarily that the policies of the two main parties are identical in content; it’s that politicians come across as if they were themselves churned out on a production line. This is related to class; the message coming loud and clear from Westminster is that politics is something we do – not you.
The scale of the problem is such that Nigel Farage, a former stock broker, can pose as a beer-drinking everyman and be almost universally believed.
And yet there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of clamour to redress the balance; or if there is it tends to focus on the superficial. There is (correctly) an increasing awareness of the need for better gender and ethnic representation in parliament, but little recognition of inherent class privilege. To exaggerate only slightly, the liberal ideal of equality seems be a House made of up 50 per cent middle class men and 50 per cent middle class women, with a sprinkling of ethnic minorities thrown in.
While undoubtedly an improvement on the current set-up, such an outcome would still be light years away from anything truly representative.
Though perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that politicians choose the superficial over the substantive. Upwards mobility for the underprivileged does after all imply downwards mobility for the privileged (there is only so much room at the top) and few elected politicians wish to follow logic like that to its conclusion.
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.