We Need to Break the 'Class Ceiling' in UK Politics
The Commons has more women, LGBT and ethnic minority MPs than ever before, but we're still struggling for working class voices.
Photo: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
Last June, Labour MP Laura Pidcock stood up in the House of Commons and announced that the place "reeks of the establishment and of power". Then 29 years old, Pidcock had just been elected MP for North West Durham in the snap election, and these were her first words to the Commons. "The clothes, the language and the obsession with hierarchies, control and domination are symbolic of the system at large," she continued.
You might expect to see these kind of sentiments on the timelines of left-leaning journalists, but they're rarely vocalised so bluntly by British politicians. As far as maiden speeches go, it stood out like a fistfight at a funeral, and obviously went viral straight away. The willingness to "say it as she sees it", as Jeremy Corbyn put it, is what got Pidcock promoted to Shadow Minister and tipped to be the next Labour leader within her first seven months in politics.
But the pendulum swings both ways, and her speech was also met with a great deal of backlash. To some, Pidcock is "radical" and a "firebrand"; to others, her comments were "infantilising and ridiculous". Naturally, she has now become a right-wing media favourite, with The Daily Mail REPORTING in EMPHATIC CAPS whenever the "Tory-hating Corbynista" misses a debate. Meanwhile, her actual point – about the lack of working class representation in Parliament and the forces that can lock people out of politics – was lost.
As austerity continues to drive inequality to the highest levels on record, we need working class voices in politics more than ever. But despite the fact both Labour and Conservative party slogans in the last election targeted rising inequality, working class people still have a collectively weak voice when it comes to policy-making. After two terms of Tory rule – and Blairism distancing Labour from the working classes by leaning towards the elite – Parliament is awash with privilege. The number of MPs with backgrounds in manual work and experience in professional backgrounds like teaching and the civil service has plummeted (manual workers accounted for 15.8 percent of all MPs in 1978, compared to just 3 percent by 2015), while most MPs now come from business roles or elsewhere within the Westminster bubble.
Yes, we now have more women, LGBT and ethnic minority MPs than ever before, and there's been a shift in the number of MPs who attended comprehensive, private and selective state schools (today the figures are 51 percent, 29 percent and 18 percent respectively, compared to 49 percent, 32 percent and 19 percent in 2015) – but that shift has been minor, and doesn’t tell us much about background; David Cameron’s daughter famously attended a state secondary school while he was in office.
If we're going to deal with the fact that a fifth of the UK is now living in poverty, it would surely help to have more MPs for whom poverty isn't just an abstract concept. So, what’s preventing more working class people from getting into politics?
One of the biggest problems is education inequality. Despite slight improvements in diversity and background, a report by The Sutton Trust found that "educational background is still a strong determinant of opportunity to become an MP". Out of 650 MPs, 86 percent are university graduates, with 23 percent attending Oxford or Cambridge – which doesn’t seem terrible on face value, but starts to look a lot different when you consider who has access to higher education in the first place. As it stands, kids from low-income families attending state schools often begin – and are likely to remain – on the back foot when it comes to education.
While researching working class children's experiences of education, Diane Reay, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, discovered that a child’s educational success depends more on the wealth and inclination of parents rather than the ability and efforts of the child. Her book, Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes, concludes that the English school system is "profoundly unjust" and creates "demoralisation, demotivation and physical and mental distress" among working class children.
These days, says Reay, working class representation in politics is worse than it was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. "I think educational inequality is part of the reason for the lack of working class MPs in British politics today," she tells me. "Because of the way state schools are sectioned into sets, working class children have a powerful sense of what they can and can't do, where they do and don't belong, from an early age."
In Miseducation, Reay argues that setting (the process of sorting children into classes based on ability) fails to realise working class children's potential. Since setting can begin in reception, kids as young as four are informed as to whether they're in a "good" or "bad" group. In placing limitations on children like that, glass ceilings effectively become concrete ones.
"This is about writing off working class children educationally," Reay says. "You need kids to go to schools that are socially mixed, but the problem at the moment is that even when schools are mixed, they're not mixed in terms of tutor groups, because the working class children are in the bottom sets and the middle class children are in the top sets. I think there should be mixed attainment teaching, but there’s a very strong resistance to that."
Established research shows that setting only really benefits "high attaining" pupils, while the reverse is true for those in lower sets, which tend to include more students from poorer backgrounds. Despite this, research from the UCL Institute of Education last year showed a widespread reluctance among schools to adopt mixed attainment teaching. The study found that resistance doesn’t come from evidence that it would negatively affect the pupils, but from concerns that it would be viewed as "unconventional" by parents, who would then send their kids to a different school. Additionally, teachers who are already stretched with heavy workloads would lack the time to do the work needed to change their practise. It concludes that outcomes might be improved (at least for low attainers) by mixed-attainment grouping, but if mixed-attainment is to be widely adopted, "a supportive policy climate will need to be created".
Ofsted reports have indicated an increasing gap in education equality for years now, with former head Sir Michael Wilshaw warning back in 2013 that "poor, unseen children" across the country were being let down by the education system. Conditions have worsened since. A 2017 report from The Education Policy Institute suggests that the most disadvantaged pupils are more than two years behind their classmates when they sit their GCSEs, and pupils receiving free school meals always do much worse than their classmates. Already struggling, and facing new funding proposals set to hit schools with the poorest children the hardest, there's no way state schools can make space in the curriculum for "extra" subjects, so creative subjects like art, drama and design and technology are often the first to go. Lack of funding due to Tory austerity isn’t just having a negative impact on the current lives of working class kids – it's also affecting their futures.
The national curriculum, introduced in 1988, has also become increasingly detrimental. In a report on primary assessment practices published last April, the House of Commons Education Committee found that national curriculum tests are having damaging consequences for both children and schools. The report warned that young children were at risk of developing mental health problems as a result of the pressure placed on them to pass the tests, and that the tests are producing "unreliable data", causing some pupils to be incorrectly labelled as low ability. Reflecting on her own study, Reay says the troubling continuity in her findings is that most working class children and young people experience education as a failure. Aptitude – for anything, not just academia or politics – is irrelevant without the structure to support it.
Propped up by EU funding, Blaenau Gwent is one of the most deprived areas in Wales, with 21 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds (excluding students) out of work, and 30 percent of children and young people under the age of 20 living in poverty, according to 2011 census data. A teacher at a state secondary school in Blaenau Gwent, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me, "If you look at the Valleys in South Wales, an area that has huge deprivation, you generally get the pupils who have disdain and disrespect for authority, because it hasn't worked out for their parents [and] these are traits the pupils then inherit. Instead of working with the systems, they tend to mistrust and work against them. They see people in authority as trying to bring them more misery, and politicians as liars. These areas have no investment and no jobs. Pupils cannot see a path to a job, let alone a future in politics."
The sense of demoralisation that both Reay and the teacher touch on is also something Stephen Manderson, AKA Professor Green, explored in his recent documentary Working Class White Men. Jumping off the statistic that just 10 percent of white working class men from the poorest fifth areas of the UK will go to university, while also being the social group most likely to go to prison or suffer addiction, the film tells the stories of three men from disadvantaged backgrounds. It attempts to understand the reality of the problem as well as the long-term effects it will have on the UK if the issue continues to be ignored.
Raised by his grandmother on a Hackney council estate, Manderson says university was never an option for him, despite having been identified as a bright kid from a young age. In an interview with Jon Snow, he said he declined the opportunity to sit the entrance exams to St Paul's – a highly selective independent school – because he didn’t perceive it to be "for" him. "Even at 11, I knew my place in the world, or thought I did," he says. When asked if he ever considered a move into politics, Manderson replied, "Growing up, I never wanted to be a part of politics. I couldn’t understand what they were saying [...] I think it’s a shame we don’t see people [with working class experience] in Parliament, because if you had people who actually understood the effect of the decisions they were making, surely they would make better decisions."
Admittedly, working class representation in politics has improved slightly since the election. On top of Pidcock’s appointment, several important Labour seats were won by working class women – many of whom are former teachers and teaching assistants who campaigned specifically on education issues, including school funding cuts – while a report on the educational profile of the House of Commons conducted by The Sutton Trust found that 51 percent of current MPs were educated at comprehensive schools, the highest number since the social mobility think-tank began recording figures.
However, that doesn’t necessarily reflect improvement as far as wealth privilege is concerned; the divisive reactions to Pidcock’s speech alone show that inequality continues to be a massively contentious issue in the UK, and ingrained attitudes towards working class MPs often come out of the woodwork during heated debates. Hugh Gaffney – a formal postal worker and trade unionist, who chose to wear his uniform to Parliament on his first day – was elected last June as Labour MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. In January, it was reported that he'd been heckled in the House of Commons over his accent and appearance. Gaffney took the "heckling" on the chin, but told BBC News, "The way to change politics is to get more real society in [Parliament] – it's purely business people in here."
To get more "real society" in Parliament we need better education equality, which would enable greater levels of social mobility, which in turn would make politics more accessible. But the current government is making inequality – in education and in society at large – worse. In Reay’s view, the UK continues to perpetuate the myth of meritocracy – the notion that anyone, whatever their background, can become whatever they want if they work hard enough – without providing the framework to enable it. That philosophy ends up placing more stress on working class kids from the outset.
"I think there’s a lot of focus on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and not enough recognition of the excluding behaviours of those who are already at the top of the ladder," Reay explains. "There’s a real strong sense at the moment that the working classes have failed the middle class: 'They’re a group in society that haven’t managed to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and become middle class. So why should we bother with them?' It’s just so pernicious and cruel. And when I interview working class kids in school, they believe it too, even though it’s really damaging for them."
The absence of working class voices in British politics is representative of inequality in British society as a whole. The elected have become so disconnected from the electorate that any change will be slow. We need policy change in the education sector, and we need Jeremy Corbyn's pro-worker sentiments to be reflected in practise by local Labour councils – neither of which are happening because of austerity. For things to change in the long-term, we need something even more challenging: the total upheaval of deep-rooted attitudes to class in this country.
"It's not just the education system that needs to change, it’s the wider economy and society," Reay tells me. "We need a reduction in the income material differences between the poor and the rich, we need a really strongly redistributed taxation system, and more money going into social housing. It’s all interconnected. Exclusions aren’t just political, they’re educational, they’re demographic. You don’t get social mobility in deeply unequal societies. In the UK we've got an enormously long, really steep [social mobility] ladder, and that’s a deterrent, but it also leads to incomprehension in different social groups. If you don’t ever mix with the other, there’s a lack of empathy."
Social mobility is often framed as looking back on where you’ve come from; "working class" is something you’re supposed to transcend or move beyond. While we need to close down the social distance between people in order to open up more avenues to university and professional roles, we also need to stop looking down on working class people and professions.
One big reason the UK is fucked is because we’ve lost working class pride – not in a Brexity way, but in a "I have a sense of purpose" way – because the economy that supported it has been gutted. As a result we’ve lost those voices and we’ve lost that understanding as part of the national dialogue. Education is obviously valuable in politics, but so is real lived experience, and over the last few decades the former has come increasingly at the expense of the latter. If things are to change, it’s not just going to be about policy change in the education sector, Reay says, "but changing people’s hearts and minds".