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



Working class MPs



Female MPs



MPs with disabilities



Young MPs



Black and ethnic minority MPs



Christian MPs



Gay and lesbian MPs



Muslim MPs



MPs of pensionable age



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

On women, political knowledge and Space Invaders

Chamber of Commons

Why aren’t more people angry about women’s political under-representation? That was the core question posed by Joni Lovenduski in a recent article in Political Quarterly, reporting on a workshop on the subject. “Participants in the workshop”, Lovenduski noted, “wondered why the political under-representation of women in the United Kingdom is not treated as the public disgrace that it is”.

“Undoubtedly,” she went on, “there is continuing resistance to sex equality, but from whom? Who opposes increases in women’s political representation?” Lovenduski split opponents of increased female representation into eight categories (also discussed here):

1. The uninterested, who think it does not matter

2. The complacent, who believe women’s interests are well represented

3. The traditionalists, who believe that politics is about the representation of class

4. Diversity advocates, who argue that gender is only one of many identities

5. Anti-essentialists, who think that claims for more women ignore the great differences among women

6. The optimistic, who think it is just a matter of waiting

7. The dinosaurs, who think politics is best left to men

8. She argued these contribute to: the mistaken, those who misread or misconstrue data about women in politics.

Anyone who has read or thought a little about this subject will certainly recognise the validity of these various categories – although it is a bit of a stretch to claim that all of them oppose increases in women’s representation. Some do, but some are disinterested, others would support an increase in women’s representation but do not see it as a priority, and yet others support the end (more women) but not the means (such as quotas).

In research forthcoming in the journal British Politics, I examine some of these issues, as part of a wider investigation into the politics of representation – and here I want to focus on argument 8. those who are mistaken. Lovenduski cites Nirmal Puwar’s concept of the ‘amplification of numbers’ from her book Space Invaders – the idea that when previously excluded groups begin to be present in politics their very novelty will lead to perceptions of their presence being exaggerated.

The survey I conducted looked explicitly at this, asking respondents to estimate the proportion of the House of Commons that came from a range of different groups – which, as well as women, included the disabled, those educated at Oxbridge, Muslims, and the elderly.

At the time the survey was conducted (2009), some 20% of MPs were female. Estimates of their presence, however, ranged from zero (from a not particularly perceptive respondent) to 91% (ditto). Some 4% of respondents got it spot on, with 31% under-estimating women’s presence and 65% over-estimating. Most respondents, then, did over-estimate women’s presence, but not by much: the (mean) average was 26%, relatively close to the actual figure, and a majority of respondents were within +/- 10 percentage points of the actual figure. There was almost no difference depending on the sex of the respondent (the mean for women was 26%, the mean for men was 25%).

Indeed, of the groups that the survey asked about, respondents were more accurate in their estimates of the number of women than they were any of the other groups. At a time when there were only four Muslim MPs, for example, the public’s average estimate of 14% would have represented some 90 Muslim MPs. The public similarly believed gay and lesbians to be nine times better represented than they actually were; the young to be sixteen times better represented than they were. It may once have been true that there were so few women in the Commons that people noticeably over-estimated their presence, and it certainly still holds for other groups, but it no longer holds for women.

More importantly, almost all respondents estimated a figure of below 50% for women MPs; just 4% estimated 50% or more, with 90% of respondents estimating 40% or lower. Whilst the survey did not ask people what proportion of the wider population belonged to each group, we can reasonably safely assume that most people will have noticed that men and women constitute roughly half of the wider population – and on that basis around 19 out of every 20 respondents believed women to be under-represented in the Commons in proportion to their presence in society.

(A side note for pedants: the fact that women in fact make up a narrow majority of the population does not alter this conclusion, both because it is moot whether the public know this – and it is their perception that matters here, not the reality – and because the figure of 4% would be the same whether we used 50 or 51% as our cut off).

This is, however, not to say that knowledge (or ignorance) has no effect. The survey also contained a question asking if people would like more or fewer women MPs, and as respondents’ estimates of women’s presence increases, so support for having more women in the Commons decreases. If we divide respondents into the categories famously devised by Drude Dahlerup, then those who thought parliament’s composition was uniform (that is, where women constituted just 0-15% of an institution) were overwhelmingly in favour of having more women MPs (68% of these respondents wanted more, as opposed to just 28% who wanted the numbers to stay the same, with a mere 3% who wanted fewer). That is a net score (More minus Same) of +40.  Of those who thought the Parliament ‘tilted’ (that is, where women make up between 15 and 40%), the net score was +12. But of those who thought that the Parliament was ‘balanced’ (40% or more) the net score had fallen to -14.

The public are then, broadly, logical in their responses: if they think there are relatively few women, they are more supporting of an increase in their numbers; if they think they are already present in numbers, they are less supportive of an increase.

This does not mean, however, that giving the public a more accurate understanding of the composition of the Commons would lead to more support for an increased number of women in politics – not least because the figure for the most accurate respondents (those who thought the Commons was ‘tilted’) was, at +12, exactly the same as the figure for all respondents. In other words, whilst improving the knowledge of those who (erroneously) think women are represented in large numbers might make them more supportive of increasing women’s presence, it would presumably have the opposite effect amongst those who currently significantly under-estimate the level of women’s political presence.

We can therefore safely reject the idea that opposition to, or ambivalence about, the scale of women’s representation is due to ignorance about their existing presence. As for the other seven explanations, well, they’re for another day…

Philip Cowley