Opinion: a need for equality? Yes, but short lists aren’t the way to achieve this

As much debate about party funding and selection rumbles on, the issue of increasing diversity amongst MPs continues to hover in the background.

I would never deny that the under-representation of women or people from BME backgrounds needs to be addressed, however there is a much more pressing diversity issue, that of diversity of social class and occupational background.

Parliament is currently overrepresented by those who have been researchers, Special Advisors and lobbyists. To give some context to this statement: the House of Commons research library reported in 2010 that 14% of the current intake of MPs have worked previously in political roles, legal professionals constitute a further 13.8%. Compare this with the 25 MPs (4%) who are from manual working backgrounds. The number of political professionals in Parliament has risen more than any other professional group in Parliament, from 3.4% of MPs in 1979, in line with this, the number of manual workers has fallen from 15.8% in 1979. Interestingly the Labour Party has both the highest percentage of MPs from professional political backgrounds and from manual working backgrounds.

In terms of educational background, the difference in the main parties is staggering; 54% of Conservative MPs in 2010 attended fee-paying schools, as opposed to 14% of Labour MPs and 39% of Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party had the smallest proportion of University educated MPs with a mere 72% of their MPs having a University education. Compare this with the 38% (approx.) of the UK population who go to University and 14% (approx.) of the UK who attend fee-paying schools.

These statistics highlight in no uncertain terms the social gap between the backgrounds of those making the decisions which affect the majority of the UK population and… the majority of the UK population. What we need above everything is a reform of the process of election, so seeking public office is accessible to anyone who wishes to seek it, regardless of their financial situation. One candidate I worked with estimated that once you took lost earnings into account, the personal cost of standing in a key seat was around £250k. And this candidate didn’t win.

So, how do we fix this? My proposal for a starting point is this- a means tested pot of money which can be applied for by people seeking office to enable them to take the necessary time off to campaign. What the threshold is or precisely how this would be funded (though Short Money is currently my winning idea) I have not yet fully reconciled. This pot of money could be to help make up an income gap, for example if a candidate had to take unpaid time out of work to undertake campaign tasks. It could be used to help fund childcare for those who this would be a barrier, or to help those who don’t have the personal resources to buy leaflets to help fund a campaign, or to subsidise fuel costs for those standing in large, rural constituencies. A number of issues would have to be thought through; would this only be available to those standing for political parties (use a similar eligibility criteria to those eligible to election freeposts), how would the candidate prove the need for the money; letters from employers, proof of low income. If this were administered by parties then run-of-the-mill activities such as attendance at party conference and training weekends could also be subsidised, as these are often necessities of candidature.

Seeking election is not currently a glass ceiling, it is a brick wall. Many are deterred by the cost of seeking public office, many just find the culture of the House of Commons so alien they feel it would be impossible to penetrate.

So, yes I agree with a need for more diversity but regardless of gender and ethnic origin, diversity of life experience is what will truly enrich our democracy and help to address the level of apathy which we see. As we see in many local government elections, people will vote for someone they can empathise with and who they can trust.

Roisin Miller is the former Organiser for Hereford & South Herefordshire Liberal Democrats and now works for an IT company in London.

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9 Comments

  • Good article and very important points raised – social diversity is in my opinion the most pressing diversity question and the one that isn’t being addressed properly, if at all.

    It also leads to other issues – for example, how can a private-school educated person properly run the state education system if that person has no personal experience of it at all?

    Payments to candidates is an idea which could be a very good idea. The wider costs of standing for election are often hidden and are one of the biggest barriers.

  • We pay organisers – so why don’t we pay candidates If it is absolutely necessary to get the best people

    Simon

  • I think the social diversity of candidates is vitally important, and as some have said, something that is often overlooked, even if it is mentioned in the current leadership programme (as a category of secondary importance, I think).

  • Including lost earnings into that £250,000 figure is a mistake. It makes it sound like that candidate was very unrepresentative of the country considering what the average wage is.

  • @Charles – I don’t want someone ‘average’ as a Lib Dem MP – I want someone exceptional.

    And that’s about talented people coming from all backgrounds – not people coming from all wage brackets. The two will certainly cross over, but let’s be careful about equating diversity in background with diversity in earnings when we talk about this.

    And going back to the original point…yes we need to find a way of overcoming the massive financial barrier to people standing.

    Personally I have no interest in standing as I equate being an MP with zero work-life balance, and the need to be single minded about doing it to the exclusion of hobbies, friends and relationships. Whilst to I would love to do the job of an MP, it’s simply not at the price of all that.

  • Jennie Rigg 11th Jan '12 - 6:14pm

    Of course, there is also the issue that looking at a person’s education does not really illustrate their social class. I went to a fee-paying school (on staff discount because my dad taught there, and further discount because of my exam scores) – my mum and dad had put money away from my birth so that I could. I have a law degree and post-graduate training in the legal field. This does not mean that I am well-off, or come from a well-off background. It means that my parents worked hard to get me the best education they could, and for various reasons I still ended up a barmaid on minum wage.

    Yet, in the unlikely event that I were to enter parliament, I would be counted among the privately educated, legally-trained, privileged elite. As well, of course, as being counted as a woman, and LGBT+. Happy as I am to tick so many boxes… 😉

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