Over recent years parliament has become dominated by a political class, the dominance of which has helped to put people off politics. They see Westminster as being divorced from real life, and they believe – often correctly – that the things we discuss in parliament do not reflect their concerns.
The reason that debate in parliament is often out of step with the public is because the people who make up our legislature are not representative of the public as a whole. The growth of the Westminster village – including think tanks and lobbyists – has exacerbated this problem.
In government I warned of the creation of a “transmission belt,” by which I meant the development of a career route in which someone begins working for an MP, before becoming a special adviser, then being parachuted into a safe seat and finally ending up serving in the cabinet.
In 1970 just three per cent of our MPs came from a political background; by 2010 this has risen to 24 per cent. Whilst political insiders have been using their networks and knowledge to find a passage into safe parliamentary seats, the consequence has been the decline of the working class MP.
2010 saw a rise in the percentage of MPs educated privately for the first time since 1983. Whilst the easy argument to make is that this is a result of more Tory MPs being elected, the reality is that the Labour party is hardly a beacon of equality.
It’s no coincidence that fewer people are interested in a politics that is dominated by people they cannot relate to, and a lack of working class candidates helps to explain why turnout is so low in many working class communities. The Hansard Society found that people feel more comfortable electing someone they think is like them, and the divide between the public and politicians is growing.
Last year I set up the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme to ensure that people from working class backgrounds who are interested in politics can have the chance to work in parliament. This provides support and opportunities to those who are passionate about politics but wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to put that passion into practice.
This is a good start, but we need to look at our selection processes to ensure that people from all backgrounds are given the opportunity to stand for parliament.
To encourage working class people to become MPs Labour needs to change the emphasis of selection processes. Currently selections focus on management and communication skills – inherently middle class. This focus can put off people from working class backgrounds, and we need to remember that these skills can be taught and learnt. There is no reason that the current crop of MPs should not be tasked with mentoring would-be candidates to ensure that we have a more diverse range of members of parliament.
The cost of selection and election campaigning can also be extortionate – the Speaker’s Conference estimated that the cost of being a candidate can run past £40,000. To meet this, Labour must consider setting aside a fund to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Speaker’s Conference report suggested this on a cross-party basis, but the reality is that progress has stalled and Labour should be taking the lead on this issue. We claim to represent the working class – we should let them represent us too.
Building a more representative politics is essential if we are to be re-elected. We need to show the public that we are in touch with their concerns, are acting on the things that they believe are important, and that we will govern on their behalf. This means looking at the lack of affordable housing, care for the elderly and people being forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. This can only happen when parliament looks and feels more like the people it is supposed to serve, and Labour must lead the way by breaking down barriers facing working class candidates to build a politics that connects with voters in 2015.