Dubious Stat klaxon!

It passed me by at the time, so I’ve only just seen a piece by Gary Younge in the Guardian, published back in May, which contains this damning observation on the educational background of MPs. ‘Today,’ wrote Younge, ‘almost 40% of MPs went to private school. In 1997 it was just 30%’. He went on: ‘In terms of social mobility, we are going backwards’.

Gosh.  Isn’t that terrible?

Except, of course, that anyone who knows anything about the composition of the House of Commons will have noticed the sleight of hand involved.

In 1997, Britain had just had a Labour landslide – with more than 400 Labour MPs, fewer than 170 Conservatives.  Today, the number of Conservative MPs has topped 300, with a concomitant decline in the number of Labour MPs.  Conservative MPs have long been more likely than Labour MPs to have gone to private schools, and so – all things being equal – you should hardly be surprised if the number of privately-educated MPs goes up when you have more Conservative MPs.

The more interesting trend is the one behind the headline statistic – and which shows that things are actually going in the opposite way to that identified by Younge.

As Byron Criddle points out in his chapter in this (rather good) book on the 2010 election, the propensity of Conservative MPs to have come from private schools has been in decline for decades.  If you take the last four Conservative victories, the figures are: 73% (1979), 70% (1983), 68% (1987), 62% (1992).  The figure for 2010 was even lower – at 54% – and of those MPs elected for the first time in 2010 the split was even between privately educated MPs.  Criddle also notes that ‘within the private school category, the presence of the famous elite schools has waned’, with fewer Etonians than ever before.

The figure for privately educated Labour MPs in 2010 was 14%, about the same as it had been for several elections.

One might still think these figures too high – and there is no doubt that there are plenty of issues about the composition of the Commons, on all sides of the House.  For all the talk of trying to create a parliamentary party in the image of those represented, the absence of working class MPs on the Conservative side of the House is striking.

At the last election, the party secured 37% of the C2 vote and 31% of the DE vote and yet almost no efforts have been made to ensure that this segment of the population – and of the Conservatives’ own supporters – receives representation on the Conservative benches.

But if you get your diagnosis of the problem wrong, you’re much less likely to get the right remedy.

UPDATE: Wrote this on Friday, and by coincidence found myself at a conference with Byron Criddle on Sunday, where he was making exactly the same point. His paper also pointed out that there has been a similar fall in the percentage of privately educated ministers under Conservative governments. The current proportion is exactly the same as their preponderance in the parliamentary party as a whole.

Professor Phil Cowley


Polling Observatory #16: Summer Doldrums

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it.

It seems that, for David Cameron at least, April really was the cruellest month.

The sharp decline in Conservative support we observed in spring has now definitely levelled off, as for a second successive month we find little change in public opinion. The Conservatives recover slightly to 31.8%, 0.8% up on last month, but still six points down on where they were at the beginning of the year. Labour are also stable, at 41.7% down 0.3 points on last month’s record high. The gap between the top two parties remains ten points, which if reflected in general election voting would almost certainly deliver Ed Miliband’s party a large majority in the House of Commons.

The junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, remain more or less unchanged, their 8.3% rating returning them to the level of two months ago after a brief dip last month. Over 18 months of poll ratings in the 7-10% range suggest that what is left of the Liberal Democrat support base is pretty loyal to the party. UKIP continue to notch up similar shares, particularly in internet polling, but we have not as yet been able to compile the necessary data to run reliable estimates on their support. We hope to begin doing this by the end of the summer.


Robert Ford, Mark Pickup and Will Jennings

Miliband Addresses the Big Meeting: A Return to Labour’s Past?

In his speech to the Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday, Ed Miliband was keen to emphasise that he was there to honour the past – to honour the tradition of the Gala itself, of the North East and of the labour movement. He was ‘humbled by the history’ of the Gala, and by the list of Labour leaders who had addressed the meeting and in whose footsteps he was ‘proud to follow’.

So, is this a return to ‘old’ Labour? Was Miliband ‘cosy[ing] up to his militant, left-wing union paymasters’ and ‘handing his party back to Kinnock’, as Baronness Warsi put it?

First, it is worth noting that relations between the Labour Party and the miners have often been far from cuddly, as Kinnock knew only too well. His appearance in 1984, during the miners’ strike, ended in humiliation, with most of the audience walking away while he was speaking. In 1969 a BBC documentary picked up on the way in which Labour leaders were called to account at the Big Meeting. It showed Harold Wilson at the 1969 Gala, sidestepping questions about whether a planned new power station in the area would be coal-fired and Barbara Castle arguing that change was ‘by definition’ part of Labour politics, while acknowledging that her audience would be at the sharp end of that change. This was just months after the publication of ‘In Place of Strife’. Even in 1947 when Hugh Dalton announced the nationalization of coal, the Durham Advertiser reported that his speech was met with ‘stony silence’ – Labour’s plans stopped far short of the miners’ demand for control of the pits.

Second – and again, contrary to popular perceptions – New Labour did not dissociate itself from its history altogether; it just became selective about the parts it was willing to claim. As I have argued in my new book, even Blair was relatively comfortable with invocations of Labour greats of the past – especially the distant past. Keir Hardie and the Rochdale pioneers were all drafted in to legitimize his political project and, crucially, to allow him to distance himself from the controversies of the more recent past. This is where Miliband’s speech gets more interesting. He didn’t stop with distant history, but instead sought to draw parallels between the divisions of the 1980s and those of the present, casting them as an example of the ‘same old Tories’, creating another ‘lost generation of young people’. Even more interestingly, it is these sections of Miliband’s speech which the Labour Party website chose to quote – precisely the divisive history from which New Labour sought to distance itself; not the more anodyne tributes to Labour’s ‘traditions’.

But this is not 1984 or 1994. The Labour Party, the country and – indeed – the Big Meeting itself, have all changed. As others have noted, Miliband’s appearance in Durham came in the same week as his praise for Tony Blair at the Labour Party Sports Dinner. Apparently Miliband felt there was a ‘synergy’ between these two events – glittery New Labour and grittier old Labour. It is only by reconciling both these pasts and focusing on the opposition outside the party that Miliband feels Labour can rebuild itself. The message is not one of returning to the past, but of moving on from it.

In any case, there is no unchanged past which can be recovered, as the recent history of the Miners’ Gala itself demonstrates. From being ‘bigger than Christmas’ in the inter- and post-war years, it declined in the 1960s and ‘70s, as the pits began to close. It was only in the early 2000s that old banners were resurrected, new ones commissioned and numbers exceeded anything that had been seen since 1960. But this couldn’t be a simple return to the past. Instead, it was a quite deliberate and self-conscious attempt to use a sense of shared heritage to reassert local identities and, perhaps counter-intuitively, to heal rifts that continue to divide villages and neighbours in the wake of the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

Carol Stephenson and David Wray have called this process ‘emotional regeneration’ and emphasised the extent to which it revolves around the memories of the strike itself. In their view, the revival of the Gala would not have happened ‘had the closure programme been allowed to follow the piecemeal and largely uncontested process that was the norm, pre-Thatcher.’ It was the need to overcome the trauma of the 1980s which made it necessary to reclaim and redefine the past. Heritage here is cathartic.

It is this story of resilience and communal spirit that Miliband is hoping to tap into.  And he too is realizing the power of invoking a sense of shared heritage in order to smooth away the divisive and uncomfortable reality of the past. As he responded to Warsi:

When you see people marching past as I did from the balcony of that hotel, a march people have been doing for 140 years, I think that it is not just about politics, it is about the strengths of these communities.

Emily Robinson

Questions about G4S, the government and securing the Games

Dr Will Jennings is a regular contributor to our ‘Polling Observatory’. He blogs over at Olymponomics.

The private firm at the centre of the row about Olympic security, G4S, has been widely criticised and some of the stories that are appearing from people who received training depict a chaotic process, but a number of questions remain about whether this situation was predictable and avoidable, and whether the government should have known that the assurances being given to it were unreliable. Indeed, this dates back to the under-estimate of the number of private security staff required for the Games in the original bid to the IOC. As far back as 2008 there were fears about a shortage of police manpower for securing the Games, so one would have thought that similar questions might have been asked about the private security industry. But, important questions remain unanswered.

  • Did the government not know that there was a shortage in the private security industry? As far back as April 2011, LOCOG itself reported concern about “A gap in the number of Security Industry Authority licensed private security guards” (p.81). The government is responsible for regulating the private security industry and so must keep a record of the number of individuals licenses as security guards, and from this should have been able to establish whether there was capacity in the sector to cope with the increased numbers required for London 2012 (which had risen from 6,500 in the bid to more than 20,000 according to some reports).
  • Indeed, it is hard to believe that the government was not aware of the issue given that in 2011 it created a special exemption through the ‘Bridging the Gap’ (BtG) programme to deal with this issue: “The BtG initiative was developed to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of qualified people in place to support the security operation at the London Olympics.” The Home Secretary was responsible for the terms of this exemption (intended to provide security training to full-time students to make up the shortage in the industry). Further, the Home Office is astakeholder in the BtG programme. While G4S might be receiving a hammering from the media and politicians at the moment, the problem needs to be put in wider context.
  • Why were penalty clauses not inserted into contract with G4S? One of the questions arising from this situation is why proper controls were not put in place to ensure that the firm delivered the services set out in the contract. This highlights the problem of ‘moral hazard’ all the more because the two actors involved in the contract (LOCOG and G4S) were not exposed to the risk, and government has had to step in to solve the problem when it was not even a party in the original contract — although it clearly was a stakeholder.

In short, given that the Olympics is the largest peacetime security operation that the UK has faced since the war (perhaps ever) and given the unprecedented demand on the private security industry, and given that all this was well known, it is surprising that more questions were not asked about the capacity of the private security industry to deliver the required number of licensed guards (even after special exemptions had been put in place). This is perhaps indicative of an ideological belief (on both sides of the political aisle) in the power of the market to deliver public services, when the reality is that labour markets often work imperfectly and slowly, especially in a specialist sector such as security when the stakes are so high.