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Politicians Should be Forced to Find Out How Their Constituents Live if They Want to Be Our Representatives

04/04/2013 13:18 BST | Updated 03/06/2013 10:12 BST

We need to talk about empathy.

In Thomas More's Utopia, a strange sixteenth century mix of fiction and political philosophy, the author floats an intriguing idea: that anyone who seeks political power should automatically be disqualified from holding it.

While that might be taking things too far - after all, we don't want to press-gang people into public office against their will - we should give serious consideration to the question: why do people choose go into politics?

For large swathes of the general public, the answer to this would be painfully simple. People go into politics because they are self-serving individuals out to feather their own nest. Of course there's certainly a few MPs who fall into this bracket, but as a generalisation I think that's overly glib and cynical. I'm still naive/gullible/stupid (delete as applicable) enough to believe that the majority of politicians enter politics out of a genuine desire to make a difference, but to succeed today that needs to be supplemented with a large dose of personal ambition. If More's criteria were applied today, the House of Commons would be empty.

However, there's no question that the last three or four decades have seen the professionalisation of politics and the rise of a distinct "political class". As the Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out in a recent column:

In 1979, 40% of Labour MPs came from a manual occupation; according to analysis by the Smith Institute that is now down to 9%. Just 4% of all representatives in the Commons can claim a background in a manual occupation, which is roughly the same proportion as went to Eton.

Over one in four of all Tory MPs were previously employed in finance; more parliamentarians came from jobs in politics than from health, teaching, the army, agriculture and voluntary services put together. With his frictionless ascent from thinktanks to backroom Labour politics to the cabinet, David Miliband is typical of the gilded class who masquerade as our delegates in Westminster.

This trend has had very real consequences for our democracy. Now, let me preface this by saying that I hate inverse snobbery as much as the regular, run-of-the-mill kind. I'm not in favour of a parliament solely composed of garage mechanics and ex-teachers, and there's certainly no reason why an Eton-educated former banker can't be a brilliant constituency MP.

But the "frictionless ascent" of many of today's professional political class means they arrive at Westminster, high-educated and dreaming of ministerial office, but lacking crucial insight into the lives of their constituents. While it's perhaps perverse to ban those who want to do the job, it's not unfair to say that, as a bare minimum, our political representatives should know how their constituents live and be able to offer a degree of empathy for those living in less fortunate circumstances than themselves.

Fast forward then to Iain Duncan Smith. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions experienced what many pundits referred to as his "Marie Antoinette moment" this week by claiming during an interview with the BBC's Today programme that he could live on £53 a week "if I had to". A hastily drawn-up petition asking him to do just that has currently amassed almost 400,000 signatures.

Yes, there is something unseemly about a Cabinet minister on £134,565 claiming he would have no problem getting by on a fraction on that. But what was more disturbing about IDS's dismissiveness was that he is one of the most knowledgeable Tory ministers when it comes to the realities of social deprivation. Nevertheless for the former Tory leader the poor divide easily into two categories: the deserving and undeserving, the strivers and the skivers. Those who remain in poverty are simply not aspiring and striving hard enough.

Empathy has become a vogue subject in academia over the past couple of years but it's a quality that large swathes of professional politicians - and not just those on the Tory frontbenches - appear to completely lack. Last November, Lord Freud, the government's welfare reform minister, launched a scathing attack on what he called:

the incapacity benefits, the lone parents, the people who are self-employed for year after year and only earn hundreds of pounds or a few thousand pounds, the people waiting for their work ability assessment then not going to it

When it was suggested that his background - Oxford, Financial Times journalist, investment banker, Tory peer - might prevent him from fully grasping what life was like for those living on benefits, the peer's reply was instructive:

You don't have to be the corpse to go to the funeral, which is the implied criticism there.

Which is, of course, true. The idea that's it's necessary to have experienced something directly to understand it is a depressing modern fallacy. I haven't personally been caught up in an extreme weather event, but that didn't prevent me feeling sympathy for people who lost their lives and homes in Hurricane Sandy.

There are, though, limits to this principle. In order to empathise, you have to at least make the effort to imagine your way into another person's situation. It's worth pointing out that Lord Freud has never actually been an elected representative, which means he's never had to trundle round an estate or a tower block canvassing support from people who live there. Instead he's known the Oxford quad, the newsroom, the plush banking headquarters and now the Lords. It's hardly surprising he hasn't not got a handle on the lives of those in Britain's low-income households.

What can we do to rectify this? I'd like to propose that all Britain's political representatives spend a week living on benefits before they take office. This is not a new idea. In 1984 writer Matthew Paris, then a Tory MP, spent a week attempting to live on the benefits paid to an unemployed worker in Newcastle. He failed miserably.

In 2003 Michael Portillo starred in the BBC documentary When Michael Portillo Became A Single Mum documentary (clips available to watch here). He emerged a seemingly changed man, somewhat chastened by his experience. More recently Austin Mitchell, Mark Oaten, Tim Loughton and Nadine Dorries featured in Tower Block of Commons, which saw them spending a week in a series of high rises across the UK.

You might think this all sounds like a colossal waste of time. Haven't MPs got more pressing things to worry about? My answer would be an unequivocal no. Empathy is an absolutely crucial part of the political picture. Take the Coalition's spending cuts. It's easy to see a policy in terms of numbers and strategies. It isn't until you seem the damage they have wrought up close that the human element begins to loom into focus.

Yes, it would be nice if all our elected representatives came from the community they're going to represent, but it's probably pointless to pine for some former state of grace which never truly existed. For the time being we're stuck with what we've got. It's time to force our politicians to learn about the realities of life in modern day Britain.