Palace of privilege: new figures reveal Lords becoming even less representative

It’s time for an overhaul of this private members club – and our democracy more widely.

Lynn Henderson
5 July 2019, 11.05am
Peers take their seats in the House of Lords before the state opening of parliament
Carl Court/PA Archive/PA Images

Turn on the news and you can see the signs of a growing antipathy towards those who occupy the highest levels of politics, business and the media.

The phrase ‘establishment’ gets kicked around a lot now. But just who makes up the governing class – and how different are ‘they’ to the rest of us?

New research by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission has looked at the background of around 5000 people across a range of high-ranking positions in British society – providing a unique insight into who is at the top in Britain in 2019.

The report shows that we still live in a society where power is held by a narrow few, a group dominated by a small section of the population: the 7% who went to private schools and the 1% of people who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge.

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And nowhere is this narrow establishment background more prevalent than in our politics. But one part of the Palace of Westminster stands out in particular.

The sheer spectacle of the House of Lords is one of an outdated and out of touch elite. Whether it’s the golden throne that sits at the top of the chamber, the ermine robes that members wear to the state opening of parliament or the fact that the chamber still guarantees representation to aristocrats through hereditary peerages – this is a place that values birth and titles over the populace.

But the exclusivity of the chamber goes far beyond the plush robes and fancy fretwork.

As it stands 57% of the second chamber were privately educated. Not only is this grossly unrepresentative of the wider public – the figure is actually going up.

In the past five years the number of privately educated peers has increased 8% - a result of the system of patronage used to pack out the upper house.

Peers are more likely to have attended a leading Russell Group University than general population (60%), with 38% having attended Oxford or Cambridge – again, two universities that produce just 1% of all university graduates.

Of the professions looked at in the research only two groups – Senior Judges and Civil Service Permanent Secretaries have a higher proportion of privately educated members than the House of Lords. It is telling that these are civil servants. Lords are legislators: they literally vote on the issues that affect all of us.

The educational background of members of the Lords is very different even to those of MPs in the Commons. A much larger proportion of peers attended elite schools and universities than their parliamentary colleagues in the Commons.

Over half of MPs attended a comprehensive school (up 12 points since 2014) compared to 29% of MPs were privately educated (down 4 points since 2014). Whilst these figures are still out of line with the national average, they represent a chamber slowly moving in the right direction.

But this crisis or representation goes far beyond just educational background. Research by the Electoral Reform Society in 2017 showed that just 26 percent of peers are women, lower than any other political institution in the country. Nearly a fifth (18%) of members of the Lords are over 80 years old – compared with just 6.6% of the UK’s adult population.

It’s time we had a politics that properly represented the people of this country. One where those who make our laws need to look like the people who live under them – and that includes people from all backgrounds, nations and regions. It will be a key focus of Politics for the Many’s “This Is What Democracy Looks Like” conference this August – marking 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre which saw many die fighting to a say in our politics.

When the Lords are appointed based on ‘who you know’, party donations and big business interests it’s no surprise that it fails to reflect the society we live in. And whilst the House of Commons is slowly changing for the better the Lords is becoming more out of touch every year.

For too long, Westminster’s political system has been for the few, and by the few. It’s time to build a politics for the many with a new upper house – elected, accountable and representative of the people it serves.

Sign up here for Politics for the Many’s “This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Building a Politics For The Many” conference and find out more about Politics for the Many, the trade union campaign for political reform.

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