Tuesday, November 18, 2008


How Representative Should the Commons Be?

John Harris in The Guardian yesterday asks if the House of Commons has become too unrepresentative of the different social classes in the UK. In 1987 there were 73 MPs who had started out as manual workers; by 2005 there were only 38: One third of British people being represented, in social terms by only 6% of MPs. In addition there has been an increase from 5.4% in 1987 to 14.1% now in the numbers of people who were recruited into parliament from the quasi-political world of reseachers, think tanks and the like, thus helping to marginalise further, anyone with real experience of the world as it is for ordinary voters.

Enoch Powell, once said in a lecture he gave at Manchester University, that the precise represntation called for by some advocates of democracy were missing the point. MPs represnted the country geographically and everyone was much the wiser after a debate involving such a diverse and spatially representative chamber. I think he's right to dismiss the idea of a democratic 'mirror' and it has to be accepted that:

i) We need MPs who are educated and able to contribute to our governance in an effective way. The examples of George Bush and Sarah Palin illustrate only too vividly the hazards of electing people with inadequate educations and abilities.

ii) Many bright people from working class backgrounds who receive good educations cannot wait to escape what might have been unhappy, unfulfilling backgrounds.

iii) Selection committees will tend to go for candidates who impress with their mastery of current issues and who express themselves clearly and effectively. These requirements will tend to favour those who have received a good education, including university, in some cases the elite ones into the bargain.

Which does not hold out much hope for this state of affairs changing any time soon. Which is a pity. It would be nice to think that intelligent working class children might return, after being educated, to assist their class fellows, as was intended by the old union route of night school and then Ruskin College Oxford. Having worked in university adult education for so long I can attest that my point ii) above applied in no small measure to the latter as well. Even among the liberal elite selfishness often or even usually out trumps altruism. A House wholly without working class MPs would be gravely impoverished and it is to be hoped some of the initiatives mentioned by Harris-London Citizens and UpRising- will bear some valuable fruit.

I agree. The last thing we want is a Parliament which reflects the people. I am embarrassed by the few "representatives" of the working classes we have. Just because people don't have money and careers, it doesn't mean they want to be represented by dullards like Denis Skinner and Prescott.

Sorry you continue to fall for the stereotype of Bush. The guy was just a very good and successful actor(witness his eloquent performance in Texas pre-2000). He played a role which worked with Americans(most of them anyway, in the elections he stood in). In fact, legally speaking, he is the best qualified President in US history.

But don't let facts get in the way of bitterness.
You won't be surprised i disagree.
1. I don't hold any brief for Prescott and Skinner but in the past people like Ernie Bevin and Nye Bevan proved tremendously able working class products. And Alan Johnson's extraordinary back story shows such things can still happen. And he is able too. But it's all too rare.

2. Bush may have been able to 'act' his way into the hearts of midwest, religious zealots, but fundamentally he was unable to operate at the level of complex ideas and language in which modern governmnet is conducted. Just compare our own Blair and their Obama(or McCain for that matter). And merely being good 'actor'- while an amazing asset for a politician- is surely not enough to become an effective head of an Executive?
Depends on your definition of "effective". For me he was very effective and did most of the things I wanted. In whichever way you define the term however, he was successful, because he was endorsed twice by his people.
I'm not sure that counting former manual workers is a helpful measure. First, the number depends on Labour's representation generally, which was bigger in 2005 than 1987. Second, the fall probably reflects a generational shift away from manual work more than it does changing class bias.

Would Alan Johnson be classified as a former manual worker? Postman work strikes me as unskilled service rather than manual work, and there are now much more of the former than the latter in the UK.

Class is still relevant. Any claim to the contrary is based on the decline of the traditional working class, and ignores the creation of a massive lower-middle class (misleadingly referred to as "middle Britain") comprising skilled manual workers and unskilled service-sector workers, a small but increasingly significant underclass, and a professional upper-middle class.
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