THE BLOG

Breaking the Westminster Bubble

12/09/2016 15:44
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After Theresa May famously stood on the steps of Downing Street talking about greater opportunities for all, the Telegraph hailed her new Cabinet as a "triumph for state education and women." Despite this, both her Cabinet and Parliament itself remain disproportionately privately educated, white and male.

There has been a wealth of research and commentary into disengagement with the political process and a so-called "Westminster Bubble" effect and whilst there are undoubtedly many factors which have contributed towards this, one which is at last catching the eye of MPs is the composition of Parliament itself.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, which I co-chair is holding an evidence session next Monday to find out why this is and what we can do about it, as part of our wider inquiry into Access to Leading Professions.

Despite some limited progress being made in recent elections, it remains the case that 32% of MPs were privately educated, compared to 7% of the general population, according to analysis by the Sutton Trust. Of these, the research shows that almost one in ten went to Eton. That's right, nearly 10% of all MP's attended the same school, if that does not highlight how power is concentrated then I don't know what does.

Amongst Conservative MPs, 48% were privately educated and while the Prime Minister's state school "triumph" with the new cabinet might improve on this slightly, it is still the case that the new Cabinet were still over four times as likely to have attended a Private School (29%) than the general population. The fact that is portrayed as a triumph shows how low sights are set on this.

Meanwhile, the stark fact remains that there have been fewer female MPs ever elected than there are male MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons. In the current Parliament, less than 30% of MPs are female and while I am incredibly proud of the work that my own party has put into this issue, it is clear that there is still some way to go across the board. Parliament also remains much less ethnically diverse, much less representative of LGBT+ communities and much less reflective of disability than the population which elected it.

So when we hear about disaffection with the political process, at least part of it must relate to the fact that many who represent us don't appear to have had remotely similar lives to their constituents. Add to that the number of MP's who were formerly special advisers or worked in some part of politics professionally and it is easy to see why politicians of all hues can be described as an "elite".

What I know from my own experience is that while I don't come from part of any elite, I was incredibly lucky to even have had a realistic shot of becoming a Member of Parliament. I was lucky because an opportunity arose in the constituency I lived in, I was lucky that I had an employer who was prepared to support me through the selection and election process and I was lucky that I had a family environment that enabled me to dedicate a considerable amount of time to the task.

How would I have fared if I was a lone parent or a carer or if I just happened to be in a job that required me to work at the time when I should have been knocking on doors? These are all huge obstacles people have to negotiate and the reality is for most that standing for election, even at a local level, is a massive commitment that people of working age in particular find daunting.

Its not just those on the frontline where examination is needed. Behind the work of the Government is an army of over 400,000 Civil Servants, with the most senior among their ranks often having as much influence over policy direction at the Ministers themselves. The Leading People report found that among senior Civil Servants, around half (48%) attended private school and for those who went to University, over half had attended either Oxford or Cambridge.

If our Government and Parliament is ever going to convince the public that it really speaks for them, we need to break the Westminster bubble and open up the corridors of power to everyone, not just those from privileged backgrounds. In our evidence session I am sure we will hear lots of good ideas about improving access, the challenge for all political parties is to actually change the way they work to make sure opportunity is genuinely there for all.

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