Politicians don’t look like the rest of us – why should we expect their policies to?

Andrew Mitchell was eventually forced to resign from the Cabinet on Friday for allegedly calling a police officer a ‘pleb’. Like the best political scandals, plebgate has revolved around a politician telling the truth, because compared to the Cabinet we are all commoners. It doesn’t matter what Mitchell actually said – the real issue in politics today is not individual personalities but the demographic profile of our politicians.

Consider this:

The Cabinet doesn’t look like their backbenches

More than half of the Cabinet attended an independent school (17 ministers), while Theresa May and Michael Moore attended both private and state schools. Whilst 19 Cabinet Ministers attended Oxbridge (61%), 12 didn’t (39%). The full list of Cabinet ministers, their schools, universities and careers is as follows:

Minister School University Career before becoming an MP
David Cameron MP, Prime Minister Independent (Eton) Oxford Politics & PR
Nick Clegg MP, Deputy Prime Minister Independent (Westminster) Cambridge Media, EU policy & politics (MEP)
George Osborne MP, Chancellor Independent Oxford Politics
William Hague MP, Foreign Secretary Grammar and comprehensive Oxford Management consulting
Theresa May MP, Home Secretary Independent and comprehensive Oxford Finance & councillor
Chris Grayling MP, Justice Secretary Grammar Cambridge Media, management consultant & councillor
Vince Cable MP, Business Secretary Grammar Cambridge Politics, economics & business
Philip Hammond MP, Defence Secretary Comprehensive Oxford Business
Ed Davey MP, Energy Secretary Independent Oxford Politics & management consultant
Andrew Lansley MP, Leader of the House of Commons Independent Exeter Politics, civil service & lobbying
Michael Gove MP, Education Secretary Independent Oxford Journalist & writer
Jeremy Hunt MP, Health Secretary Independent (Charterhouse) Oxford Business & PR
Eric Pickles MP, Communities Secretary Grammar Leeds Polytechnic Business, councillor & Leader of Bradford City Council
Justine Greening MP, International Development Secretary Comprehensive Southampton Accountant
Lord Strathclyde, Leader of the Lords Independent University of East Anglia Politics
Grant Shapps MP, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party Grammar Manchester Polytechnic Business & writer
Danny Alexander MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Comprehensive Oxford PR
David Jones MP, Welsh Secretary Grammar UCL Solicitor
Michael Moore MP, Scottish Secretary Independent & grammar Edinburgh Politics & accountant
Owen Paterson MP, Environment Secretary Independent Cambridge Business & agriculture
Patrick McLoughin MP, Transport Secretary Comprehensive Staffordshire College of Agriculture Farm worker & miner
Iain Duncan-Smith MP, Work and Pensions Secretary Comprehensive & military school (HMS Conway) Sandhurst Army & business
Maria Miller MP, Culture Secretary Comprehensive LSE Advertising, marketing & PR
Theresa Villiers MP, Northern Ireland Secretary Independent Bristol Barrister, lecturer & politics (MEP)
Sir George Young MP, Chief Whip Independent (Eton) Oxford Policy & politics (councillor & member of GLC)
Kenneth Clarke MP, Minister without Portfolio Grammar Cambridge Barrister
Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office Independent Cambridge Lawyer & politics (Westminster councillor)
David Laws MP, Minister for Schools Independent Cambridge Banking & politics
David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities Independent Oxford Politics & think tanks (Centre for Policy Studies)
Baroness Warsi, Minister for Faith and Communities Comprehensive Leeds Solicitor
Dominic Grieve MP, Attorney General Independent Oxford Barrister

This is somewhat different to MPs. 112 MPs were educated at Oxford, whilst 53 went to Cambridge – this means that ‘only’ 25% of MPs went to Oxbridge compared to 60% of the Cabinet. According to Kavanagh and Cowley in The British General Election of 2010 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) the parliamentary parties elected in 2010 break down as follows:

  • 34% of Conservative MPs went to Oxbridge, compared to 30% of Liberal Democrat and 18% of Labour MPs.
  • 54% of Conservative MPs went to an independent school, which is similar to the Cabinet but is higher than the 40% of Liberal Democrats MPs and 14% of Labour MPs who did so.

We have a Cabinet of lawyers, politicos and ex-businessmen and women; this is broadly similar to the party backbenches. Kavanagh and Cowley found that:

  • 41% of Conservative MPs elected in 2010 had a career in business before entering the Commons (125 x MPs), 18% were solicitors or barristers (56 x MPs) and 1 in 10 worked in politics (31 x MPs).
  • 31% of Labour MPs had a career in politics (as local politicians, union officials or political organisers – 81 x MPs), 14% worked in education (35 x MPs) and 10% were solicitors or barristers (26 x MPs).
  • 19% of Liberal Democrat MPs worked in business before becoming MPs (11 x MPs), 18% worked in education (10 x MPs) and 12% worked in politics (7 x MPs).

However, the main Cabinet jobs are held by individuals who have never held a job outside of politics and PR. Cameron, Clegg, Hague, Alexander and Osborne don’t have a background in business or the law in the way that their party backbenchers do. There is also a dearth of local government experience in the Cabinet – only five Ministers – Grayling, May, Maude, Young and Pickles have held elected office as a local councillor.

Parliamentary parties don’t look like the electorate

People educated in the independent schools sector are significantly over-presented in Parliament. Only 7% of young people in Britain are educated in the independent sector, yet over half of the Cabinet went to a private school. Oxbridge accounts for a tiny proportion of the higher education sector in the UK – but over 60% of the Cabinet attended these two elite institutions. (According to the TES – 45% of places at Oxford and 40% of those at Cambridge are taken by pupils from the independent sector.)

Professions such as law, business and politics are significantly over-represented in parliament as well. There are more barristers and solicitors on the Tory benches than there are Tory women MPs. Indeed, there are nearly as many Etonians in Parliament (20 MPs) as there are former manual workers (25 MPs).

Women and people from BME communities are also still significantly under-represented in Cabinet and Parliament. There are only 5 women in the Cabinet (16%), and only 1 BME politician. Women also account for just 22% of MPs elected in 2010. Broken down by the main parties this comprises:

  • 16% of Conservative MPs (48 MPs)
  • 12% of Liberal Democrats (7 MPs)
  • 31% of Labour MPs (81 MPs)

Progress was made in 2010 in the number of black and Asian MPs that were elected, which rose from 14 in the last parliament to 27 in this Parliament. They make up 4% of MPs in the Commons, compared to the estimated 8.7% of the total UK population.

Three women in the Cabinet – Baroness Warsi, Maria Miller and Justine Greening all hail from parts of Britain not usually considered true blue. Miller grew up in Bridgend, South Wales, Warsi is from Dewsbury and Greening from Rotherham. All three of them attended their local comprehensive and had a career before entering politics. Of course, both Warsi and Greening were demoted in the Summer reshuffle.

Attempts to diversify the make up of parliamentary parties have met resistance from party memberships

Party memberships are increasingly different to not only their parliamentary parties but also to the wider electorate – the membership of the Conservative Party is rapidly ageing for instance. It is well documented that the membership of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats are in steep decline and compares poorly to the increase in membership of smaller parties such as the SNP, Greens and UKIP. Membership of both the Conservatives and Labour parties has halved since the 1990s, whilst the Liberal Democrats have seen their membership fall from 100,000 in the 1990s to 65,000 at the beginning of this decade. Attempts have been made to diversify the parliamentary base of the main parties but they have met resistance from local party associations. Political parties are no longer the mass movements for change that they used to be but their membership base still controls the selection of parliamentary candidates.

The result, then, is that the main political parties, Parliament, and especially the Cabinet do not look like us. That being the case, why should we expect the policies they propose and support to ‘look like us’ either?