So former TV presenter Gloria De Piero has set out to examine why people hate MPs. Steven Fielding traces a long history of this, and says the problem is nothing new, although its scale may be. But the issues De Piero raises are important nevertheless.
The most interesting line in the piece about De Piero is this one:
De Piero said: “The most depressing quote I got was from Sharon [one of the Manchester mothers trying to save a local Sure Start children's centre]. She said ‘there will never be a prime minister like us’. I just think ‘why not?’”
De Piero of course gives no answer to this question, because the answer is complex and not altogether clear. But I am going to have a go at partially answering it.
Let’s start with De Piero herself. Her own family background is modest, but from then on things looked up – she went to university, ended up working in television for GMTV, and became a MP in 2010. In short, hers is a story of social mobility into the middle class, and then into politics. While I do not know De Piero and her constituency, I nevertheless have seen the ascent of other connected middle class candidates in Labour who have used a combination of their networks, personal wealth, or an advantageous job to enable themselves to be selected.
A large number of the 10% of MPs in Westminster that do not have a university degree did things a rather different way, particularly on the Labour side. The route there was often through trade unions that could offer the organisational training and financial support to candidates that did not have those means themselves.
Yet neither of those routes is open to the Manchester mothers, at least not in the short term. They would either have to professionally climb first (the De Piero route), or pursue a route through organised labour, a route that becomes less and less likely as union membership declines across the UK.
As if this were not enough, there are other factors at play within political parties that make the predicament even more complicated.
Firstly, political parties have become less participative internally in the era of 24/7 news coverage. This is especially so in Labour, where the policy making processes have been hollowed out since the mid-1990s. Hence Constituency Labour Parties tenaciously cling onto their powers to select candidates – it remains one of the only genuine powers party members still have. This therefore increases the likelihood that parties will go for one of their own, rather than for someone who is in any way an outsider. It also does not help when parties do not even properly communicate about what positions are available.
Secondly, with so many levels of elections to fight (councils, Wales-Scotland-London, European and Westminster), parties lack the resources to do genuine campaign work for all the elections they have to fight. This inevitably means that candidates that can bring time and money to a campaign are going to be favoured – Lucy Powell, now MP for Manchester Central, did not work for 6 months and lived off her partner in order to campaign (para 3 here). Christine Quigley, a friend who I’d expected would seek selection to be a Labour MEP, stated on Twitter she couldn’t afford to fight a selection across 73 constituencies and hence would not be going for it. I just do not know if it is now possible to behave like ‘normal’ people in politics.
Of course all of this leads to an ever greater disconnect between political parties (and hence MPs, MEPs etc.) and their electorates. The vast majority of people rightly would not sacrifice everything – time, job, family and a lot of money – for a shot at being a politician, and cannot necessarily relate to the type of person that’s personally manic enough to go through that sort of process.
David Lloyd George pushed forward the decision in 1911 that MPs should be paid, so as to make sure that being a MP did not depend on having the personal means to sustain oneself. I wonder if our current predicament is replicating the problem, only at the entrance gate instead – the means required (either financially or in terms of a network) to be selected in the first place are keeping all kinds of people out, and this is having a corrosive effect on how our political parties function and hence, in turn, on the trust in representative democracy itself. And as our parties wither, so the disconnect grows, and so the cycle continues to perpetuate. How do we find a way out of this?
Stuart Wilks Heeg on Twitter has pointed me towards this excellent 2006 piece from ConservativeHome that does a breakdown of the costs of being a candidate. Who has a spare £27k hanging around?