The public do want working class MPs – and more local ones too

Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband by net_efekt

Ed Miliband’s comment in his recent House Magazine interview that he would like to see a more diverse House of Commons – and especially more working class MPs – is not a new development.  It is an argument he has been making repeatedly since becoming Labour leader in 2010, and in one sense, in doing this he has been treading a well-worn path.  All the mainstream British political parties are – to varying degrees – now officially signed up to the underlying principle that political institutions should broadly reflect the social characteristics of the people they represent.  David Cameron’s very first speech as party leader in 2005 had contained the claim that ‘We will change the way we look’. The idea that what Anne Philips called ‘the politics of presence’ is important is now a widely, if not wholly, accepted part of political discourse in the UK.  Yet what has been different about Miliband’s interventions on this subject are that they have been framed more broadly than has been usual in recent British political discourse.

Early concern about the politics of presence (albeit not using that terminology) focussed almost entirely on social class.  But class then fell largely off the agenda, both in ‘real world’ and academic debates, to be replaced, first, by sex, and then, second, by ethnicity. All the main British political parties are committed to schemes to ensure that a greater number of women are elected as MPs (although these schemes vary in their strength and utility); there are also efforts (again, of varying strength and utility) to do something similar with the representation of ethnic minorities. Until very recently almost all senior British politicians speaking on this subject would mention both groups routinely, but with (at most) a passing reference to, some usually unspecified, ‘other groups’.

With the establishment of a Speaker’s Conference in late-2008 – specifically to investigate the under-representation of certain groups – there were signs that the debate was widening.  Although it was set up initially to focus on sex and ethnicity, the Conference soon adopted a wider focus on diversity, which included the representation of both disability and sexuality (and, albeit to a lesser extent, social class and age).  The effect of this, allied with contributions of Miliband and others in also discussing social class, means that the coverage or scope of the politics of presence – in terms of the number of characteristics that are seen to require or deserve representation – is currently wider in the UK than it has been at any point since mass suffrage was introduced.

In one sense, the only surprising thing about the return of social class to the debate is that it took so long, given that the most striking feature of changes to political representation over the last 30 years has been the decline of working class representation in the House of Commons, a decline much sharper than the decline of the size of the working class population in the population as a whole.

One retort to such concerns is to say that the voters are not interested – that all they want is the ‘best person for the job’ (a formulation that curiously appears to deliver a disproportionately high number of white, middle class, men).  But in fact there is good evidence to suggest that many voters do care, and do indeed want to see a more diverse Commons.

In a paper forthcoming in the journal British Politics, I examined the public’s attitudes to their MPs – and who they would like in Parliament.  It examined ten characteristics, covering ethnicity, class, age, religion, locality, sexuality, and disability.  Respondents were given the choice of ‘a lot more’, ‘a little more’, ‘same as there currently is’, ‘a little less’, and a ‘lot less’, plus a Don’t Know option.

As the Table below shows, there was a sizeable group of respondents who were quite happy with things as they were. In seven out of the ten cases, the plurality option was ‘same as there currently is’.  Indeed, in all but one case, the combined percentage of those who wanted things to stay as they were or who did not know was over 40% of respondents; it was over 50% in four cases.  But once we examined those who did have a preference and wanted to see a change, in all but two cases those favouring an increase outnumbered those favouring a decrease.

To what extent do you believe that parliament should have more or fewer… (net scores)

Net score

Stay same

MPs who come from the area they represent

+80

18

Working class MPs

+58

35

Female MPs

+50

40

MPs with disabilities

+46

47

Young MPs

+44

38

Black and ethnic minority MPs

+29

44

Christian MPs

+14

58

Gay and lesbian MPs

+3

50

Muslim MPs

-6

41

MPs of pensionable age

-21

40

The most popular response was for MPs from the local area.  This was the only option of the ten where a plurality (47%) chose ‘a lot more’ as their response; another third (35%) selected ‘a little more’.  Just over 1% of respondents (combined) selected either ‘a little less’ or ‘a lot less’.  This produced a net score of +80.  This was followed by working class (+58), female (+50), MPs with disabilities (+46), and young MPs (+44).

There was less support for an increase in black and ethnic minority MPs (+28) or Christian MPs (+14), and almost no support for an increase in gay and lesbian MPs (+3).  There were then two groups where a majority of those who wanted to see change thought there should be fewer of the group: Muslims (-6), and MPs of pensionable age (-21).  There were, at the time of the survey, just four Muslim MPs in the Westminster Parliament – yet many of the public wanted still fewer.

Individual sub-groups of the population often take different views, however.  Working class respondents (C2DE) were more in favour of having more working class MPs (+65) than were middle class (ABC1) respondents (+53). Whilst the main, representative, survey found no support for more Mulsim MPs, a separate booster sample of Muslim respondents produced a figure of +66.  Similarly, whilst the overall score for gay and lesbians was just +3, amongst a booster sample of gay and lesbian respondents it was +77.

In promoting a more diverse House of Commons – and especially more working class candidates – Ed Miliband is therefore on to something. The demand for change is not overwhelming, but it is present.  He would be on even stronger group if he promoted local candidates as well. However, if one of the aims of pushing for a more representative House of Commons is to increase people’s sense of faith in parliament and politics, then we should at least be aware that promotion of one group could potentially lead to a reduction in support amongst others.

Philip Cowley