It’s still ‘who you know’ not ‘what you know’

Alan Milburn Social Mobility PhotoBy Hazel Blears MP

Andrew Neil’s Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain documentary a couple of weeks ago confirmed what most of us already knew – that politics, and parliament in particular, remains dominated by people drawn from a narrow pool that is not representative of our communities.

Research shows that 10% of the 2010 intake of MPs came from just 13 schools, and that 33% of all MPs are privately educated, compared to just 7% of the total population. All three party leaders were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge, and the government currently includes 12 Old Etonians. It’s no wonder that many people still look at parliament and think ‘that’s not for people like me.’

There is another trend that is arguably making politics even more exclusive. During the past 20 years an increasingly common route to becoming an MP has developed, which often begins with someone working as a parliamentary intern straight out of university, before taking a job as a sesearcher or a Special Adviser, and then standing for election.

In 1970 only 3.4% of MPs had previously worked in politics; this has now risen to 24%, and now a political job is the most common occupational background that MPs have been involved in before entering parliament. This is the practice across all three main political parties, with a political background being the norm for 27% of Labour MPs, 20% of Conservative and 21% of Liberal Democrat MPs.

This career path, which is becoming a quasi graduate scheme, is questionable in itself, but I am particularly concerned about the predictable social background that can be found behind the majority of those on the first step of this journey – parliamentary interns.

A number of MPs – estimated at 450 by UNITE – have interns working in their parliamentary offices, who provide approximately 18,000 hours of unpaid work each week. These placements give interns the opportunity to see first-hand how parliament works, to gain an insight into the type of work an MP performs and the chance to develop their skills for future permanent positions. The substance of these internships is undoubtedly positive, but their current structure is not.

It’s expensive to live in London, and not many people can afford to work for free. People who live outside of London have the added problem of trying to find somewhere to live. And of course many positions that do come up aren’t even formally advertised at all and opportunities are instead passed word-of-mouth to those with the right connections.

My worry is that the nature of these internships creates a number of barriers that stop some people being given the chance to work in parliament, and mean that too many people working in politics come from a similar background. We need to broaden the pool of talent that our politicians are drawn from, and give people from working-class backgrounds and different geographical regions the opportunities that are currently restricted to the few.

Three years ago in a Hansard Society speech I argued that it is deeply unhealthy for our political class to be drawn from a narrowing social base and range of experience and that if action isn’t taken to address this it will only widen the gap between politicians and the public. The statistics from this year’s election show that the problem is actually getting worse.

Since last year’s general election I have been working on a cross-party scheme – supported by the Speaker – to open up parliamentary internships to those who would normally feel shut-out because of the unwritten criteria that currently work against them.

Last week the House of Commons Commission voted unanimously to give our scheme – called Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements – the go-ahead, and we will now be raising funds from external donors to finance the programme. This is a really good opportunity for some of our banks, law firms and businesses to demonstrate that their commitment to social mobility goes beyond mere words, and I am confident that they will help to provide the funding that our programme needs.

The Social Mobility Foundation will be administering the programme, and will use criteria to ensure that applicants are taken from lower-income backgrounds. We will also be encouraging people from across the country to apply to increase the regional diversity within parliament – and this is not just a scheme for students, it’s for people of all ages who are passionate about politics.

The scheme will place interns in an MPs office for 6 months, and they will also spend 2 months working for the house authorities, giving them a real experience of the way that different parts of parliament interact with one another, and how our political system works

We’ll be launching our scheme formally in the next few weeks, and the recruitment phase will start in the summer – so keep an eye out for it, and encourage anyone you know with an interest in politics to consider applying.

I know that this is no miracle remedy, but I’m confident that our scheme will be a positive step in the right direction and help begin to make parliament and politicians more representative of the most important people involved in politics – the people.

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