Michael Gove. Wellington College/Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Who are the people we elect as politicians? And how do their backgrounds influence what they do when elected?
Income and wealth
* The basic annual salary for MPs is £74,962, not including expenses, while the UK median pre-tax full time salary is £27,600. MPs earn more than the bottom 90% of the country.
* Less than 2% of UK adults are millionaires, while at one point two thirds of David Cameron's cabinet were millionaires. Theresa May's cabinet was similarly unrepresentative.
* Just 7% of children go to private school in the UK, but 48% of Conservative MPs, 17% of Labour MPs and 14% of Lib Dems MPs were privately educated. The average cost for a place at a private school in the UK is £16,119 a year. St Paul's (which George Osborne attended) and Westminster (attended by Nick Clegg) costs £23,481 and £28,200 respectively for day students. Compare this to how much most people earn in the UK and you can see how exclusionary this is.
* Cameron was the 19th out of 54 prime ministers to have attended Eton. Attendance at Eton currently costs £37,062 a year. Only nine (or 17% of) prime ministers have been educated at non-fee paying schools, and many of those were selective grammar schools. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May attended grammar school.
* In 2014, an estimated 9% of MPs studied just one subject at one university – Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. The chart below shows how an education in social studies, law, history and philosophy dominated parliament in 2014, and how science and many other fields are absent or under-represented, which will affect which laws and policies are pursued.
Profession and class
* Going back to 1979, no less than 10% of MPs from the three main parties have been barristers or solicitors (while 0.22% of the UK population are solicitors), and the percentage of MPs that had been publishers or journalists has never fallen below 6% (less than 1% of the population are journalists).
Over the same period, the percentage of MPs who were manual workers – such as miners – has decreased steadily from 15.8% 35 years ago to just 4% today. When polled, a majority of the public said it wanted less lawyers and reporters as MPs, and more doctors, scientists, factory workers, economists and teachers.
In the 2015 election the Conservatives received 36.9% of the votes, but won 50.9% of the seats, thanks to our first past the post voting system. The table below, from the Electoral Reform Society, shows just how unrepresentative MPs are of UK political opinion.
Health and disability
Gender, skin colour and sexuality
* 50.7% of the UK population are women, but only 29% of MPs after the 2015 election were women.
* 13% of the UK population are from ethnic minority backgrounds and yet 6.3% of MPs in the House of Commons and 6.4% of Peers in the House of Lords were ethnic minorities.
* Around 5% of MPs are out LGBT, which is roughly the same, and may even be more, than in the UK population.
These privileged and disproportionately white, male, wealthy, privately educated, Oxbridge and social studies graduates often can’t understand, let alone truly represent, most people in the UK whose situations and choices are outside their own life experiences. MPs backgrounds influence the kinds of policies they pursue, from housing to education. For example, it is unsurprising that the Conservatives voted down a law requiring homes to be fit for human habitation, when so many of them are landlords.
Similarly, given so many Conservative MPs attended private schools, it is difficult to imagine them removing the VAT exemption on private school fees to pay for free school meals for all primary school children, as the Labour Party have promised in their manifesto.
If you believe that one person can speak for an average 71,314 constituents, we need a greater diversity of politicians to be able to represent us. All-women shortlists have been used in some constituencies, including by Labour and the Lib Dems, to ensure more gender balance.
Structural inequalities would have to be addressed to further improve diversity in parliament (and society at large), however the diversity fund for potential MPs, as suggested by Jeremy Corbyn, would help get more working class people into parliament.
If you believe that MPs can't really represent us, and that certain types of people will always tend towards power, then more forms of direct democracy could be the answer. Referendums (as held regularly in Switzerland), participatory budgets (which started in Porto Alegre and spread across the globe) and constitutions written by the public (as attempted in Iceland) are some of the many examples of more direct forms of democracy. Until this happens in the UK, we need to elect the people who will most likely represent the diversity and needs of the British population as a whole.
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