Working class candidates need genuine access to the political system – encouragement is not enough

23rd July, 2012 3:00 pm

There is a crisis of working class representation in Parliament. While there is no shortage of talented working class people the route to parliament is crowded by sharp elbowed middle class folk. There needs to be serious and drastic action to address this situation – we need shortlists that aim to address the lack of working class representation within the Labour Party in parliament. This would go some way to solving one of the root causes of the problem: ordinary people seeing politics as a completely different world, a world they can never access.

Who can blame people for thinking this? Take the most recent PMQs for example. It felt like watching “Oxford Union Plus”. David Cameron was flanked by Nick Clegg and Andrew Mitchell while Ed Miliband was flanked by Ed Balls and Harriet Harman. All – except Miliband – attended expensive fee-paying secondary schools and all – with the exception of Harman – are Oxbridge graduates. This is only a small example the difference between ordinary people and the political class but the broader numbers underline the disparity. Of the 2010 intake of MPs over a third went to fee paying schools, 91% are university graduates and a third went to Oxbridge. To put this in context only 25% of the UK adult population has a degree.

It is heartening that there are attempts within the party to address this problem: the programme, led by Jon Trickett, to identify working class candidates; the Labour Diversity Fund will help candidates without the means to fight expensive campaigns; the Future Candidates Programme will provide training and support to those wishing to become involved in campaigning and politics. As important as these programmes are they do not go far enough. There is more absent from the picture than training and support. People need to believe that a career in politics is actually a viable option for them.  It is a problem that reflects one of the reasons for poor state school representation at Oxbridge. It is not that state school pupils are not talented enough to get into Oxbridge – they are. Most do not see it as a possibility so they do not apply.

This is why shortlists which focus on increasing working class representation could be very effective. They would open a road into the political world that is currently blocked by a traffic jam of special advisers, parliamentary researchers, think tank types and lobbyists. Shortlists may be a brutal solution but the situation is dire and the success of all-woman shortlists in improving the gender balance of MPs shows they work. There would be some obvious challenges in bringing about the introduction of such shortlists. In particular, setting eligibility criteria would be difficult and controversial. However, these problems can be overcome and shortlists made a reality if there is a will to do so.

Shortlists are far from an ideal solution but given the entrenched nature of the problem a solution that works, even if imperfect, is needed. Shortlists would be a corrective to Labour Party selection processes that have consistently failed to widen participation and to reflect the country the party claims to represent. Such shortlists would show working class people that parliamentary selection is not the preserve of the middle class and that parliament is not a talking shop for the fortunate.  They would also be good for the Labour Party itself. The pool of talent the party currently draws from for parliamentary candidates is too narrow. Growing the diversity of people, views and backgrounds available can only strengthen the party’s connection with the people it aims to represent.

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