Originally published in Shout Out UK.
The Brexit impasse is maddening for ordinary voters who seek clarification and compromise from the British governing class — but it’s not the only reason the public is growing frustrated with their elected Members of Parliament.
In recent years, more numbers of women and candidates of ethnic minority status are being elected to the House. However, these promising signs mask the dark reality that ordinary voters have become increasingly voiceless in Westminster — and they’re getting pretty sick of it.
Latest government statistics reveal the full extent of this developing gulf between Parliament and its electorate in terms of educational and occupational background — which has inexcusably worsened since the 2000s. The 29 per cent of politicians elected in 2017 that attended fee-paying schools, for example, is over four-times the 7 per cent amongst the UK population as a whole.
Of the 82 per cent that hold a degree, 29 per cent have come from Oxbridge — a higher percentage than the total number of UK degree-holders (only 27.2 per cent). By way of comparison, over the period 1918-45, only 40 per cent of MPs belonged to the graduate class. Unlike then, apparently the ‘representative’ element of representational democracy is now optional.
Even within the Labour Party — the political grouping most committed to representing working-class voters — 84 per cent of 2017-elected MPs were graduates. That’s up from 59 per cent in 1979. In fact, the Labour Party is now almost exclusively run by public-sector or managerial professionals belonging squarely to the middle class. Jeremy Corbyn himself does not escape this charge, living out his entire political career in the beautifully prosperous suburbs of Islington North. Gone are the days when the party was buoyed by higher rates of regional miners, manual labourers, teachers, and non-university educated representatives. It appears that working-class credentials are simply tokenistic extras in a party-political system that relies on an educated bureaucracy.
There is a bleak conclusion to be drawn from all this — that the majority of Commons representatives share little direct experience with the constituents they claim to represent. This is not irrelevant: feeling adequately represented by your elected member is precisely what distinguishes functioning democracy from an elective aristocracy in disguise. Members in representative democracies aren’t necessarily elected because they ‘know best’, but because they are typically one of the few self-selecting choices available. MPs need to avoid haughty presumptions that they understand their constituents’ needs better than they do.
The reasons behind this narrowing social distinction in the House of Commons are varied. One obvious issue of concern is the rising cost of becoming a politician. Recent estimates from The Spectator put the current price tag at a hefty £34,000 — on account of travel expenses, foregone salary and London living costs. Others are more endemic to Britain’s electoral system. For one thing, there are currently no requirements that MPs seeking election must represent the geographic region they live, or have lived in: amongst voting constituencies in the 2016 referendum, only half of MPs did so.
London in particular is over-represented in terms of the MPs it produces — resulting in their inevitable migration elsewhere. Even if well-intentioned, the absence of affinity between local constituents and migrating parliamentary candidates can lead to a breakdown of trust in the representative system. In short, these ‘migratory MPs’ are often viewed simply as university-educated political employees serving their constituents on a superficially contractual basis. The community they represent is emphatically not ‘theirs’, and as such, there is no genuine connection between member and voter.
The consequences of this pattern are becoming increasingly evident as the Brexit debate plays out. It is widely reported, for example, that Labour’s ‘grassroots’ favour pushing for a second referendum — with a view to Remain in the EU. However, using grassroots in this context is erroneous — since only the Labour membership backs a second referendum and is stringently pro-Remain. Seventy-one MPs have backed this commitment in a signed statement, while half a dozen came out in public support of the People’s Vote policy hours before Parliament’s no-confidence debate. Given that 6/10 Labour MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies, acquiescing to the demands of the membership alone would be electoral suicide. There is a widely held sentiment in Leave areas that politicians are refusing to take into account the expectations of their constituents. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that many life-loyal Labour voters are now considering voting Conservative if only to guarantee Brexit.
Ultimately, unless politics is democratised — by introducing higher pay, stricter representative requirements and an emphasis on suitability rather than educational and occupational background — the Brexit saga will continue to effectively wrestle control away from Parliament through violent and dangerous means. As certain individuals respond negatively to the perception that they are being ignored (recall ‘Soubry is a Nazi’ outside Parliament!) — the possibility of violence is growing more immediate. Politicians need to swiftly take stock of the breach of faith between themselves and their electorate before the recent barrage of verbal vitriol explodes into something far more sinister.