Reforming the political class: Are small parties the answer?
Dissatisfaction with the political class is endemic within the British political system. Declining support for the two main parties has been in evidence since the 1970 general election, where 89% of voters supported either the Conservative or the Labour party, by 2010 this figure had dropped to 65%. Yet the British political establishment is only now acknowledging that the Westminster model of doing politics is breaking. Public frustration with ‘politics as usual’ is expressed in two ways: in rejecting the political elite (67% of the public say ‘politicians don’t understand the daily lives of people like me’) and in increasing support for smaller parties (a third of voters say they will not vote Labour or Conservative in May).
A growing sense of social distance between the political class and the electorate has entered the political discourse in recent decades, but we must be careful not to eulogize a fabled golden age where all politicians were local, working class boys (certainly not girls) that never was. Between 1979 and 2010, the number of women MPs grew from 19 to 143 and the number of BME MPs increased from 4 to 27. In contrast however, the number of MPs who were previously manual workers fell from 98 to 25, with manual workers representing just 16% of MPs in 1979. The overwhelming majority of MPs were always drawn from professional and business backgrounds.
So what, if anything, will the 2015 general election do to change the electorate’s view of the political class? Will current trends continue or are we likely to see a more representative political class? Recent reports provide some reason to be optimistic—at least in terms of race/ethnicity and gender. A study by British Future projects a 60% increase in the percentage of BME MPs elected, bringing the overall number to 44. Similarly, the Electoral Reform Society has projected an increase in the number of women MPs, from 148 to 192, or 30% of MPs following the 7 May election.
Drawing on data from our (www.parliamentarycandidates.org) project, we find that if there is an increase in BME representation, then much of the credit goes to the Conservatives who lead the other parties with 14% of candidates from BME backgrounds, and who have selected BME candidates in 6 of their safe retirement seats. If there is an increase in the percentage of women MPs, then much of the credit here goes to Labour. Although the Greens and SNP have a higher percentage of women candidates overall, it is Labour who has selected women candidates (53%) in marginal or potentially winnable seats.
Labour’s lead in the selection of women is undoubtedly the result of their use of all-women shortlists in candidate selection, but the issue of quotas for women is also pressing for other parties. Already we have seen the SNP voting to allow equality guarantees in their selection processes, Nicky Morgan has argued that her party should have 30% women MPs and Nick Clegg has said his party would back all-women shortlists to increase the number of women MPs. Quotas however, are unpopular with voters. A YouGov poll conducted for The Times in August 2014 found that 56% of the British public are opposed to AWS. Men were more anti-AWS than women, with 63% of men opposed compared to 51% for women.
But increasing the number of women and BME MPs may not go far enough in improving the electorate’s view of the political class. Research by Phil Cowley has shown that what the public really want is more ‘local’ and working-class MPs, but there is little debate or appetite amongst the parties to use some form of quota to increase the number of local or working-class candidates, although some have called for them.
So can the electorate look to the smaller parties to provide parliamentary candidates who look more the like British public? Is a vote for one of the smaller parties a vote for a different kind of political class? Do the smaller parties offer up something different or is it more of the same?
Part of the attraction of Nigel Farage for voters is his anti-Westminster/outsider status. Unlike other party leaders, Farage didn’t go on to an elite university, instead taking up a job as a stockbroker out of school. But while Farage likes to portray himself as having been educated in the ‘school of life’, like many other politicians he’s a public school boy from a middle-class family.
Our data show that the candidate profiles of LibDem, UKIP, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru are remarkably similar to Labour and the Conservatives, despite their smaller party status. With respect to education, 47% of UKIP candidates have an undergraduate degree, a level similar to candidates from the Labour and Green party (48%), but less than Conservative (62%) and Liberal Democrat (58%) candidates. Similar to the Tories, UKIP candidates are more likely to come from business backgrounds, with Labour, Plaid and SNP candidates having jobs in ‘politics facilitating’ occupations like journalism, law and education. And the smaller parties are not any less likely to be ‘political insiders’: 48% of UKIP candidates have worked as party officials; 53% of LibDem candidates have served as councillors or in another elected office; and 36% of SNP candidates have worked as political/parliamentary researchers.
The similarity of candidate background across the parties poses something of a problem for the electorate. If dissatisfaction with the political class and politics as usual is driving some of the support for the smaller parties, then voters will be disappointed to see ‘more of the same’ after 7 May. If changing the political class is a genuine priority for voters, they may have to consider unpopular options—like quotas—to drive genuine change, even if they must hold their nose while doing it.
-Jennifer Hudson (UCL) and Rosie Campbell (Birkbeck)
NOTE: A modified version of this piece first appeared on 2 April 2015 in the Telegraph online; you can find the original piece here.